Don't Let the Miserabilists Clip Humanity's Wings


In the topsy-turvy world of eco-friendly corporate thinking, it should come as no surprise that one of Britain’s leading holiday companies, Thomson, wants you to think very carefully about what you pack for your holidays. Apparently, you should be as obsessive about the weight of your airport novel and your swimming gear as you are with the recycling of your rubbish at home. Why? Because by packing less stuff to take on a plane, you can do your bit to reduce the use of aircraft fuel, lower CO2 emissions and thus ‘save the planet’.

Thomson takes your environmental responsibilities so seriously that it has enlisted the services of Brix Smith-Start, a stylist from the Channel 4 show Gok’s Fashion Fix, to advise on an itsy-bitsy, teeny-weeny holiday suitcase. Thomson has done research that shows, shockingly, that only 16 per cent of travellers actually use everything they have packed.

If people cut the weight of their bags by a quarter, says Thomson, 7,537 tonnes of CO2 could be saved each year. That is apparently the equivalent of taking 2,216 family cars off the road. To put this into perspective, there are around 30million cars used in the UK. Compare the grand campaigns with the minuscule CO2 savings and it’s clear that the cant and self-deception that now surround flying in and out of the UK are – even by the standards of environmentalism – quite extraordinary.

This moralism goes all the way to the top of society. For example, the Lib-Con coalition programme includes a section on energy that is emphatic about Britain not having a third runway at Heathrow, or any additional runways at London’s other big airports, Gatwick and Stansted. This sounds like good news for The Planet, but it is dwarfed by the fact that, right now, China alone boasts no fewer than 166 working airports, has a further eight opening this year, and plans to build a further 70. Do those who oppose runways in Britain think they can stop this kind of commitment to air travel? Go right ahead and lobby Beijing, guys.

Or take the global picture. Boeing’s latest annual projection of the worldwide number of passenger jets likely to be in service over the next 20 years shows that growth could well be explosive.

Passenger jets in service, 2009 and 2029, as forecast by Boeing

2009 fleet 2029 fleet Large 390 440 Twin aisle 1030 3150 Single aisle 2560 8130 Regional jets 140 480 Total 4110 12200

Maybe Boeing’s totals are, from the aerospace industry’s point of view, too optimistic. Or maybe they are an underestimate. But given the broad growth trend in air travel, both of passengers and freight, it is clear that even if current air-related greenhouse gas emissions are actually quite small, aeroplanes will emit a significant amount of greenhouse gases in decades to come.

Even if, as the industry argues, jets become more efficient in the future, that won’t stop large rises in emissions. As the greener-than-thou New Economics Foundation (NEF) delights in pointing out, in a wide-ranging document titled Growth Isn’t Possible, ‘efficiency gains of just one per cent have been described as “rather optimistic” given that the jet engine is now regarded as mature technology, and annual efficiency improvements are already falling… An analysis of projected aviation growth and anticipated improvements in aircraft efficiency suggests that if growth in Europe continues at five per cent, traffic will double by 2020 (relative to 2005). With an “ambitious” one per cent annual improvement in fleet efficiency, CO2 emissions would rise by 60 per cent by 2020.’

Improvements in the energy efficiency of flying are desirable, but given that we would expect such improvements to mean cheaper flights, they will probably mean more flying and more CO2 emissions, not less.

Given the long-term trend to greater air travel, we need to be more realistic about our approach to it. We need to recognise that flying is a good thing and work out how we can reduce its negative impacts, not simply abandon it or try to restrict it. For example, there is much talk about using telecommunications to replace travel. But in reality, no amount of IT-aided virtual tourism or business will ever substitute for actually moving around. No screen experience, no matter how touchy feely, can replace direct contact with the terrain, food, culture and people that one meets abroad. Going abroad broadens the mind; as such, the aspiration to travel is a good and noble one.

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