Should I fly?

AeroplaneSunsetIn 2013  Tourism Concern’s fundraising team of trekkers took the train rather than plane from London to their destination Marrakesh,  to reduce the environmental impact of the trip. But was this ethical and should we be encouraging tourists to stop flying altogether?

There is no doubt that flying uses a lot of carbon. The flight to Marrakesh is approximately 2000Km and uses about 400Kg of carbon; the train journey, although longer (3200Km) still used considerably less carbon (around 100Kg).

It is true that booking the train tickets isn’t as easy as booking a flight and the journey also takes almost 3 days (instead of 3 hours); additionally it could be argued that it would be more ‘ethical’ to spend the 3 days in Morocco supporting the local economy.

To be fair to flying, it doesn’t use as much carbon as some ‘Chelsea tractors’ or large cars, per passenger km. Cruise ships also use a lot of carbon, with some estimates suggesting that cruise ships use 2.5 times as much carbon per passenger km as a flight.

The problem with flying is that we travel large distances in a short space of time, so one return long haul flight will use about 4 tonnes of carbon. To put this in perspective every person in the UK is currently using around 8.5 tonnes of carbon per year – and the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research says we need to cut emissions by 90% by 2050 – this means that every person in the UK would need to use around 1 tonne of carbon per year – clearly impossible if you include a flight. The global average carbon emissions per person for a whole year are equal to one long haul flight and over half of the world’s countries are currently using less than 5 tonnes of carbon per person a year.

According to the Stern report the total annual CO2 emissions from aviation is about 600-700 million tonnes – a 2-3% share of global CO2 emissions. The UKs CO2 emissions from aviation doubled between 1990 and 2000 and are expected to double again by 2030.

Aviation is currently the fastest-growing contributor to CO2 emissions. Furthermore, CO2 emitted at high altitude has a greater effect on climate change than the same amount at ground level. Also, at high altitude planes produce contrails (trails of water vapour condensation), which have a ‘radiating force’ that contributes significantly to climate change.

Climate change is already having a devastating impact upon the lives of people around the world. Many of the poorest people and countries in the global South are suffering the worst of its effects, including rising sea levels, loss of biodiversity, and changing weather patterns leading to increased and prolonged periods of drought and flooding. Furthermore, poor Southern countries have the least resources and capacity to mitigate and adapt to the challenges of climate change.

Tourism and those who depend upon it for their livelihoods also stand to be major victims of climate change. Low-lying islands, such as The Maldives and the Pacific Islands, are already falling victim to rising sea levels and sea acidification that is destroying the sea life that tourists flock to see. Meanwhile, rising temperatures mean snow shortages in many of our favourite ski resorts.

Tourism is a key development driver in the global South –and the main foreign exchange earner for 65/69 developing countries. Many poor communities are heavily dependent on tourism, despite major question marks over its long-term sustainability. If tourist numbers were to suddenly decline, this would have a negative impact on local people. This means that climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies need to take such tourism dependencies into account, and foster alternative, sustainable livelihood sources and strategies for local people and economies if tourism declines.

The UNWTO is predicting tourism arrivals to double in the next 20 years. Whilst it is true that new technology is likely to make planes more efficient it is difficult to see how we are going reconcile more flights with reducing carbon emissions.

We believe that consumers need to take a responsible attitude to flying. Fly less and switch to other forms of transport, particularly for shorter journeys. If flying long-haul, try to go to destinations in developing countries and to stay longer, so that your contribution to the host economy is greater.

In terms of the future it is difficult to see how tourist numbers can double with a ‘business as usual’ approach to flying and the environment – the industrialised tourism model of the last 40 years is clearly going to be unsustainable so we urgently need to start thinking about how tourism will look in 2030 and beyond.
So should we fly? Yes, but we need to fly less, stay longer and ensure our holidays are as good for the places we visit as they are for us. If we are going to use a years’ worth of carbon in one flight we must make sure that our holiday brings real benefits to the destination community.



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