Message to Extinction Rebellion: Flying is here to stay – but we need to reduce its carbon footprint

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It was 13 July 2005, and I was sitting in an office in Madrid when I got the dreaded phone call to tell me that my father, who had been suffering from cancer, was slipping away. By that evening I was by his bedside in Surrey, and held his hand as he died the next morning. I am very glad, to this day, that I got back in time.

Extinction Rebellion had the intention on Good Friday of disrupting flights at Heathrow. ‘Terribly sorry’ – they said – ‘if your Easter getaway is delayed’ – fortunately none were. Delaying an Easter skiing break might be annoying, but not the end of the world – is how their argument goes.

…Except for the fact that not everyone flying is getting on a plane because they want to. A flight delay or cancellation can have enormous ramifications. – Consequences which Extinction Rebellion seem to be blind to. Aside from the example of when my father died I am reminded of my good friends whose holiday abroad ended in tragedy when their 9 month-old son died from cot death. After dealing with an unhelpful British consulate, eventually they were able to repatriate his body to the U.K. Further delays thanks to a few climate change protestors would have rubbed salt into their wounds.

On a wider level, how do Extinction Rebellion think that international aid workers get to their place of work on the ground to deal with humanitarian emergencies like the Ebola crisis, famine in Africa or floods in Bangladesh to Puerto Rico? Not on the back of Santa’s sleigh.

There is no doubt that aviation is a big contributor to climate change and that flying a lot isn’t good for the planet. However when your job requires it or you have family abroad (I fall into both categories), then to suggest, as one pro Extinction Rebellion friend did, that flying is a privilege, is simply not true.

Local MPs in South West London have quite rightly opposed Heathrow expansion but we have to be clear that, like it or not, flying is here to stay.

There is nothing to stop governments anywhere from incentivising the aviation industry to reduce its carbon footprint. It is possible to have much higher landing charges at airports for older, and more fuel inefficient planes or planes which fly virtually empty. It is also possible to give tax breaks for research and development into manufacturing aircraft which use less fuel.

Other countries could follow the lead of the U.K. and levy higher passenger duties. Airlines are also able to do their bit for the environment by minimising the use of disposable plastics – just as some hotels do by asking you to think twice before asking for your towels to be washed every day.

In the U.K., we can also easily improve public transport to our airports – especially Heathrow, or make the cost of it more competitive compared to taking Uber or a taxi. Indeed, one of the main arguments against Heathrow expansion is the impact it would have on air pollution related to surface transport in West London.

Politicians and their parties who support immigration and the idea of accepting refugees also need to remember that those refugees surely have a right to go back and visit their families. Do we tell the Syrian family, who made their way to the UK via a rickety dingy, that because of climate change we shouldn’t allow direct flights to Damascus to land in London one day in the future ?

Rather than trying to make life miserable for the flying public, Extinction Rebellion and those of us concerned about climate change should see the world as it is, not just how they would like it to be. They should be sitting down with airlines, aircraft manufacturers and politicians and demanding change.

They should also avoid being accused of hypocrisy – for example, certain parts of the media quite rightly called out Emma Thompson for flying into the U.K. to protest against climate change.

If we are serious about climate change then let’s work to find ways to make aviation less polluting. Not ruin the lives of people for whom stopping flying simply isn’t an option.

* Chris Key is dad of two girls, multilingual and internationalist. He is a Lib Dem member in Twickenham who likes holding the local council and MPs to account.

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22 Comments

  • nigel hunter 25th Apr '19 - 4:01pm

    There is an all electric plane flying today. A two engine one. It is a start but there is along way to go for it to be universal. The aircraft industries should cooperate with Govnt’s to speed up this developmen.t

  • Thanks, Chris, for an interesting article.

    I applaud Extinction Rebellion’s campaign as highlighting very important issues and having made me move my position in the last week of one that more needs to be done quicker.

    I don’t fully share their analysis. There are questions of where and when we spend our money. For example do you spend money today on electric cars today or tomorrow when they are cheaper and you have more money to spend on more measures etc.

    It is a standard rhetorical device of course to overstate issues with the opposing side but the aviation has a lot to address.

    And while we all have sympathy for those that have to fly to visit sick relatives, we need sympathy also for those that will have relatives suffer because of freak weather etc. due to global warming. A vast amount of air travel is unnecessary – short haul flights have alternatives such as trains, many business trips could be done via teleconferencing, holidays abroad may be nice they are not necessary.

    Aviation is a bit of a problem. There is little alternative to fossil fuel – electric planes are some years away. It is a big emitter – if aviation was a country it would be equivalent to a country such as Germany. It is set for explosive growth – 70% more emissions in 2020 than 2005, may be 3 to 7 time by 2050.

    The good news is the aviation industry has agreed that GROWTH from 2020 in carbon emissions will be offset.

    But if you think we need to pick up speed on carbon emissions as I increasingly do then there is actually much, much more for the aviation industry to do.

    https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/transport/aviation_en
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-37573434
    https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/aviation-is-first-global-industry-to-limit-carbon-emissions/

  • @Chris, I think you need to think a little deeper and get your head around the sheer scale of the perfect storm rapidly approaching – for which the warning bells have been sounding for circa 50 years. Aviation, like many other aspects of our oil and fossil fuel dependent economy and lifestyle, will have to change dramatically in the next couple of decades.

    The challenge that people keep ducking is how to use our current world to put in place a world that doesn’t have many of the luxuries of our world. Part of that, and perhaps the most challenging is changing people’s habits and perceptions. For example, I suggest none of those going on Easter ‘getaway’ flights, were making essential journeys, so the quickest and easiest way to make aviation less polluting is to axe these non-essential ‘holiday’ flights. However, apart from the general backlash, that will cause a massive reduction in size of the aviation industry with its associated impact on jobs and tax revenues… It seems perverse that by having a desktop video call/meeting (1 hour) with a client in the EU27, instead of taking a day and flying to see the same person and hold the same 1 hour meeting, I’m contributing both to a reduction in emissions and to a reduction in tax revenues (both in the UK and in my client’s country)…

  • Electric cars and planes are not the answer to anything until we decide that all our electricity is going to be generated renewably – an achievable goal but one which needs massive investment and government commitment: something the LibDems should have in their manifesto.

  • Most flights are not vital. . Short haul flights are less fuel efficient than long haul flights. The blunt truth is that there is currently no way of delivering the speeds, prices and convenience travellers want through environmentally sound means. Electric engines and solar or eco friendly systems can’t lift an umpteen ton aircraft with 200 passengers on board to 33 to 42,000 feet at a speed of 926 KMH or if you prefer 575 mph. The market is expanding not contacting. The problem is that too many people are not serious about climate change. What they want is the kudos of appearing eco-friendly whilst carry on as usual and waiting for some sort of last minute solution. In political circles there is also conflicting ideological concerns of endlessly wanting more growth, more freedom of movement, more building, thus more destruction of habitat and looking concerned about polar bears or some such as a sop.

  • @ Chris Key,

    Chris, could I suggest you acquaint yourself with the recent scientific literature on climate change?

    Your article is utterly superficial. You simply haven’t got the measure of the problem facing us at all.

  • The argument that Video Conferencing is an acceptable alternative to traveling to Frankfurt for a day falls apart. Companies don’t spend £500 and a full day out of the office for their workers for the fun of it, they do it because the face to face meeting is worth more to them than the time and money saved with a video conference.

    The EU should be looking at increasing the cost of air travel, based on fuel usage, rather than the blunt instrument of APD. Any flight landing in or taking off from the EU should have a charge on the fuel it uses, not based on how many people are on board, not ignoring the efficiency. This would have to be a pan-europe policy though.

    The money should then be put into mitigation of the effects of climate change, whether that’s lab grown meat (with renewable energy powering the lab), pushing faster with renewable electricity throughout europe, retrofitting insulation into homes (in cold countries) to reduce energy use there, etc.

    Groups like Extinction Rebellion want everyone to drastically change their lifestyles. I don’t see that happening, either in the West, or in growing countries.

    You catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

  • David Garlick 26th Apr '19 - 10:40am

    There is no way that any actions to reduce the carbon footprint of aircraft can even compensate for the increase in the number of flights…! The only way this polluting travel will be able to cut its emissions is to do less of it.

    To do that is not to end air travel nor stop the clearly very highly emotive flights occasioned by family emergencies.

    Some form of, and it is going to have to be complicated, rationing by category of flight either by limiting the annual air miles for individuals for pleasure and for business or a financial charge for any miles over the set limits will be necessary. All the proceeds of any charges to be channelled into support offsetting measures to reduce the net carbon output of the UK air industry as a whole.
    A move to ore tele conferencing (not always the best wat to do business, will help.

  • Homo Sapiens have been around for less than half a million years (the blink of an eye in earth’s history of life) and,despite us inventing ‘gods’ to give us a unique, if erroneous, claim, the earth isn’t ours; it just is.

    Carl Sagan’s warnings regarding ‘Spaceship Earth’ have been ignored for almost 50 years and now it looks like we have left ‘change’ far too late. I seriously wonder if, in another 50 years, we will still be just ‘talking’.

  • Peter Martin 26th Apr '19 - 11:22am

    There is no way that any actions to reduce the carbon footprint of aircraft can even compensate for the increase in the number of flights…! …..

    There is if the aircraft are hydrogen fuelled.

    https://www2.greencarreports.com/news/1109041_why-liquid-hydrogen-may-make-sense-for-airplanes-replacing-jet-fuel

  • This article comes across as though the author doesn’t believe there is any actual threat to our way of life and our prosperity from climate change. He is wrong about that, and as a result his conclusions are false, superficial and wrong.

  • An acquaintance, recently returned from a skiing holiday (flights included) told me she is going to join the Extinction Rebellion protest in Southampton tomorrow. What did Lenin say about useful idiots ?

  • Yeovil Yokel 26th Apr '19 - 8:29pm

    Remind your acquaintance, Chris Cory, that skiing requires reliable snowfall, and that in years to come she may only find that at higher latitudes and altitudes…..

  • Laurence Cox 26th Apr '19 - 9:20pm

    @Chris Key

    Jet aircraft have been experimentally powered by biofuel for more than a decade: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aviation_biofuel

    and the biofuels could come from algae, avoiding the need to use agricultural land: https://theconversation.com/how-hacking-photosynthesis-could-fight-deforestation-and-famine-114929

    There are already strong incentives not to use inefficient aircraft and to maximise passenger numbers. Low-cost carriers have shown the way here. If we are to go to the next stage, we need an annual air miles allowance for each resident, with tradeable permits, so anyone needing to fly more than their allowance would have to buy the extra air miles in the market. This is after all what the EU already does in the ETS, but it needs to be more rigorously enforced.

    @Paul Weaver
    Video conferencing works, yes really. The last two organisations I worked for before I retired used it extensively (to the extent that it wasn’t always possible to get access to the videoconferencing suites). One even had weekly video conferences with staff in the equivalent organisation in South Australia. An occasional physical visit can be useful in developing relationships, but if your organisation is not using video conferencing as its primary means of holding discussions between staff at widely separated sites then it is not being efficient in its use of staff time.

    @Chris Cory
    I think that I would call them middle-class poseurs. It confirms what I have heard about some of the other people in XR. Whoever thought that gluing themselves to public transport (electric-powered at that) was a meaningful protest needs their head examining.

  • @Paul Weaver – The argument that Video Conferencing is an acceptable alternative to traveling to Frankfurt for a day falls apart. Companies don’t spend £500 and a full day out of the office for their workers for the fun of it, they do it because the face to face meeting is worth more to them than the time and money saved with a video conference.

    I suggest you seriously give it a go, I ‘ve been using video conferencing since the mid 1990’s and desktop conferencing since 2008. In a comment on another LDV article, I note I have significantly reduced my flights (and increased the time I spend with my family and friends) whilst still serving my international client-base. In my experience many companies continue to spend on travel because it is what they understand, rather than invest in something new and develop a new culture and style of relationship with their clients.

    Yes, video conferencing doesn’t totally do away with face-to-face in-person meetings, but if the reason for going to Frankfurt every week is for a 1~2 hour project progress meeting…

    Also I suggest you listen in to a teenager participating in online gaming – whilst I object to the number of hours my son spends on his games console, he is learning how to work with and build teams with people from around the world – okay he is only trying to achieve the various objectives of whichever game he is playing, however, the soft skills he is developing are fully transferrable; naturally, he has met none of them and is unllikely to meet any of them physically in the same place and time. I fully expect todays teenagers who are the first generation to grow up online – the Internet has always been there for them, as have smart phones, to have a different relationship both to other people and technology to what my generation had, which in turn is different to my parents generation.

  • I don’t see why we’re all being encouraged to pour scorn on XR. It’s getting people involved and highlighting the dangers of what is happening to the environment. Sure some of the are naïve and don’t see the contradictions. But that also applies to people who think you can destroy great chunks of the country side for building homes for a constantly expanding population, ignoring landfill, water tables, the extra resources used up. have over 102. 0000 flights a day, and balance this out with a few green policies about bags or light bulbs. Deep down we no that commercialism and capitalism is the cause, but like an incipient alcoholic showing signs of liver damage keep drinking anyway, then rationalise it by saying “well, I do mix my gin with low cal tonic water”.

  • Corbyn launches bid to declare a national climate emergency.
    Labour will this week force a vote in parliament to declare a national environmental and climate change emergency as confidential documents show the government has spent only a fraction of a £100m fund allocated in 2015 to support clean air projects.

    At the same time I note that LibDem ratings have fallen to 6%. Hmmm

  • chris moore 30th Apr '19 - 3:29pm

    expats 28th Apr ’19 – 8:43am At the same time I note that LibDem ratings have fallen to 6%. Hmmm

    @ expats: Don’t cherry pick polls!

    This is the worst recent poll; the average is higher, around 9%. A subsequent You Gov poll has us on 11%, for example.

    BTW Recent Scottish polls put us on 8% and 9% in Scotland.

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