If you thought the flight shaming movement in Europe wasn’t being taken seriously, think again. It’s a global movement generally, started in Sweden by some protesting school students, and founded by Greta Thunberg at the age of 16 last year, and it’s really caught hold.
It’s also not strictly true to say they’re directing their ire against airlines, it’s a general attack on companies that say one thing and do another – often nothing significant at all – to reduce their impact on the environment. These young people feel – and I admit I have every sympathy with their view – that those older than they are are simply blind to what’s fast becoming a global crisis. In many ways the Trump administration and its near pathological determination to roll back environmental protections, withdrawal from the worldwide Paris Climate Agreement, and its outright denial of climate science, has driven them even harder.
With aviation being one of the biggest polluters – and yet more evidence in the past week that despite its clear advancements in engine technologies and alternate fuels, it’s going to pollute even more in coming years.
The reason is that despite reductions of around 20-25% across the board in pollution from aircraft, their numbers are growing at such a rate – doubling between 2000-2015 and expected to double again by 2030-35, that their emissions are skyrocketing. Aircraft represent 2.5% of the annual global emissions problem, but they still have the ability to have disproportionate effect from other pollutants like nitrous oxide.
Recent studies show that the number of aircraft is now posing a direct problem for areas where flights are especially busy – and they’re not talking major towns and cities. Contrails – not just water that’s visible from the ground from high flying aircraft, but the gasses emitted, tend to be in long, continuous streams, routing over specific areas for weeks at a time, as literally, thousands of aircraft fly the same intercontinental routes. In regional areas like the US West and East Coasts, Japan, China, Western Europe and the Gulf, SE Asia, vast atmospheric ‘scars’ of pollution are having an effect on sunlight on the ground, and the speed at which Co2 is effective at high levels is far quicker by a factor of ten.
In the eyes of many, shipping by sea – which is about to undergo a major change in emissions regulations in 2020, is the worst, but its very much up there with aviation, not in volume, but the intensity of its impact.
It’s the immediacy of aviation’s impact. When it emits it dumps that pollution into the worst place possible – the upper atmosphere. That’s what gets the Flight Shaming to the top of the agenda. If you cut flights you have a direct and immediate effect on the atmosphere. This was conclusively proven in September 2001 – a near global cessation of flights in the northern hemisphere following 9/11 showed that as soon as contrails went missing for as a little as a day, sunlight levels at monitors around the globe showed an increase of between 1 and 4%, and it rose higher with each day of the flight ban.
Airlines know all this. They know what they’re doing and they are slowly being forced to rein in emissions, find alternate fuels, use less of it by lightening loads. Everything from dumping a ton of paper in-flight magazines to using light weight catering trolleys has been tried, but few airlines carry it through. Airlines still use a staggering quantity of single use plastics, and few are doing anything to reduce it.
So, KLM to their credit, are trying to get ahead of the game. They’ve launched a “Fly Responsibly” Campaign.
The airline has written to its customers, asking them to think before they book a ticket. Do you really need to fly? They’ve tied all of this to a website outlining what they’re doing to try and control emissions, providing tips on how you can pack lighter, and thus save emissions in flight. Do you need to go for that meeting, can it be done online? Could you take a train? Link: KLM’s fly responsibly website
On top of that they’re making it clear that you can offset your emissions for a relatively minimal price into programmes that KLM runs that reduce or neutralise Co2.
In all fairness many airlines offer carbon-offset plans, but its estimated less that 2% of passengers pay it.
Airlines need to be very wary of the slow speed of their reactions. Governments have cottoned on to an other revenue opportunity – avgas taxes. These are not taxed by international convention, yet the French, and other EU governments, are looking at getting the international agreement changed to allow it. If they do, and they will likely succeed eventually, it will severely impact ticket sales and profitability.
There is an argument that nobody really pays the environmental cost of a flight. The more expensive your seat (i.e. business/first), proportionately the less you pay for the environmental damage. Most scientists agree that flying is the most damaging thing anyone can do to the environment.
Younger people now think that its too high a price to pay. The danger is that flying will become something only those who can afford it can do, and everyone else will be shamed, or priced out of it.
The irony is that giant aircraft like the A380, filled with 800 economy seats, are exactly one way round the problem. The emissions per passenger per kilometre are way lower than operating six smaller 150 seat aircraft to cover the same number of people. That was the ideal concept, but airlines barely average 420 seats on these massive aircraft. Thats because they’re driven by profit, not environmental cost. Unless that changes, will they?
Air freight is also another big issue for the environmental lobby. Flying green beans and broccoli stems from Kenya, or prawns from Europe to Thailand for processing and then back again? The cost of that is ridiculous environmentally, but its allowed tens of thousands to get out of poverty in Kenya and provides jobs in Thailand.
Then again how urgently do you need a new iPhone flown from Guangzhou via Dubai to Leipzig, then to East Midlands, then trucked to a depot and and then to me? Do we even know that’s what is happening?
We have but one planet. Some airlines are better than others at dealing with the environmental challenge. Some say it, do little, others like KLM at least seem to be trying to do more than average. For that they must be commended. Sadly I doubt that one small step at a time is going to be a solution. And more importantly what is the answer?