Last week, BBC Three Counties radio ran a feature on whether Extinction Rebellion was right to target airports. I was asked to comment and gave this answer:
“Our campaign asks people to choose not to fly because they have realised the climate effects of flying. We aim to inspire people to travel in other ways. Arguably, when someone disrupts an airport, that choice is taken away. But equally, we are so close to climate breakdown that we don’t have time for people to make that choice. We desperately need the Government to make it far easier and more attractive for people to use less polluting forms of transport, and far more difficult and expensive to use the most polluting forms of transport. And to make the Government listen, radical tactics are needed.”
Presenter: Yes, but you haven’t answered the question. Is Extinction Rebellion right to target airports?
“Oh, well, yes, of course! Isn’t that obvious?!”
It's easy to forget, when you work in the bubble of aviation campaigning, that the vast majority of people in the west don't know how bad aviation really is. Aviation is often cited as being responsible for just 2% of global emissions. That’s about the same as Google. So what are we worrying about? Shouldn't we just turn off our computers?
Well yes, but, don’t forget that almost half of the global population owns a smartphone – that’s a lot of people online ALL THE TIME – and that’s before you count all the offices, businesses and schools around the world. It's an industry that serves a hell of a lot of people.
Aviation, on the other hand, serves a tiny percentage of people. Less than 10% of the global population has ever been on a plane. So for an industry to be that polluting yet serve so few puts it into some kind of context.
Anyway, 2% is a conservative estimate, and only accounts for CO2, so when you factor in the additional GHGs such as nitrates and methane, it’s more like 5%. Which, by the way, is a significant chunk of total emissions of the transport sector as a whole, which is 15%. Doesn’t seem so small now, does it?
But the most telling part is when we consider how aviation affects our individual carbon output. If you fly, those flights will equal and surpass the footprint of any other activity you do. Eat meat? One flight to LA produces more CO2 than eating meat for a year. Even if you’re vegan, the carbon savings can be wiped out by a return trip to Tenerife. The average carbon footprint of a European is around 7 tonnes of CO2 per year. Each short haul flight contributes 0.5 to 1.5 tonnes of that total, with long haul adding up to 6 tonnes. That’s per passenger. The scary part is that a sustainable carbon budget, as recommended by the IPCC, is 2.3 tonnes. Each. Per year. If you eat meat, that’s it. If you fly short haul, you’re nearly there. Long haul? Bust.
So it becomes clear that, in order for this planet to continue to sustain the human race, we have to change everything about the way we live. Diet, clothing, travel, consumption. Simply put, there is no place for flights in a sustainable future. And yes, we at Flight Free UK want people to choose to reduce or completely stop their flights, but when everything seems geared towards keeping us flying – cost, convenience, advertising – we need the Government to step in.
Yes, people will be inconvenienced, and yes, holidays might be disrupted. But how inconvenient will it be when we don’t have clean water to drink? When we can’t grow enough food? When we are trying to find space for all the climate refugees who have been forced to leave their homes by sea level rise? In ten years we won’t be worrying about holidays. We will be dealing with the devastating onset of a climate crisis that we’ve known about for decades. Why are we so reluctant to act?
So, well done Extinction Rebellion, for lighting the fire. Flight Free UK will continue to push for behaviour change and a social shift away from flying. But individual change and system change go hand in hand. As a certain Swedish teenager said, you cannot have one without the other. So we’ll go after the individual, and XR, you go after the system. Go get ‘em.