Per Capita Davis: If seeing the world helps ruin it, should we stay home?
The last column was the third of three about money, investments, and spending moving capital towards support of a sustainable future.
It touched on the subject of “carbon offsets,” payments made to any number of projects that reduce (“offset”) CO2 emissions at least equal to what is produced from an individual’s activity, such as flying on an airplane. This article is more about those flights, what they cost the environment, what they contribute to the climate crisis, and what some airlines and countries are doing about it.
The New York Times recently published what was essentially a self-examination to address and answer the question, “If Seeing the World Helps Ruin It, Should We Stay Home?” The paper has a robust travel section, and each year they develop a list of “52 Places to Go” and assign someone to be the 52 Places to Go traveler who goes to and writes about each. One a week, and all over the planet; sounds like a great job.
The traveler wrote about the offset issue, and the travel editor followed up in a later edition, both with the same conclusion: they would continue flying and writing about wonderful places to delight and inspire us readers but they would purchase carbon offsets for all air travel by anyone working for the Travel Desk.
They made a distinction, however, between travel for the travel section of the newspaper and travel for other employees such as news reporters “who have to fly to the scene of an earthquake or a fire or to where fighting is taking place in a remote theater of war.” This appears to me to be a distinction without a difference and it reduces their commitment to a very small percentage of the corporation’s total greenhouse gas emissions.
This decision to offset by individual rather than for the whole corporation is, in fact, one of the criticisms of offsets generally, and it applies directly to air travel. Most airlines offer the opportunity for passengers to calculate an appropriate level of offset for their travel, and most have a website to facilitate that calculation and actual purchase of the offsets. Very few use it. The airline itself is, therefore, somewhat “off the hook” in terms of responsibility for directly offsetting the harm of its emissions.
In their defense, the airlines assert they are doing other things to reduce their carbon emissions, for example by making their planes more fuel-efficient. Notwithstanding, according to an article in Bloomberg Businessweek, “CO2 output per passenger mile remains at least quadruple that for trains. And thousands of older models are in service because planes typically fly for decades before being retired.” There are also some signs early of movement, especially for smaller aircraft, to become electrified. For example, non-public testing of hybrids (electric with a fuel backup) has begun for commuter flights between Hawaiian airports, with a plan to introduce commercial flights by the end of 2021.
So why is this such a big issue? Well, the NY Times cites scientific calculations that, “a person’s share of the emissions on a one-way cross-country flight from New York to Los Angeles shrinks the Arctic’s summer sea ice cover by three square meters, or 32 square feet. Ignoring the fact that they should probably be referring to cubic feet rather than square feet, this is an astonishingly significant number when one considers the amount of air travel worldwide. According to the article in Bloomberg Businessweek, “Airlines this year will pump almost one billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And the United Nations says aviation is on track to overtake power generation as the single biggest emitter of CO2 within three decades.”
This has led individuals and companies to question their air travel. In Sweden, there is a term, “flygskam,” (try saying that three times fast) meaning, “flight shame” that appears to be reducing air travel in that country. Similarly in France, “#avihonte” translates to “aviation shame.” Of course, European airlines are more susceptible to these shaming efforts than others, such as the U.S., because Europe has much better options, including high-speed rail, as well as destinations that are often closer together. Still, consider the following.
Again citing Bloomberg Businessweek: in France, some lawmakers have proposed a ban on in-country flights; in Austria, the state railway has increased the number of sleeper trains to meet increased demand; Germany is considering plans to dramatically reduce taxes on train travel while increasing taxes on air travel; a major bank in Finland is reducing employee flights by seven percent and offsetting remaining trips; a German broadcasting company says it will no longer pay for in-country employee flights; a Swiss insurance company has indicated it wants to cut back on flights as one of its primary strategies to reduce corporate emissions, indicating “More of our meetings are taking place in virtual space. Flying isn’t a prerequisite for getting business done.”
Airlines are watching and worried about these and other potential disruptions, and it certainly can’t help their bottom line that flying just doesn’t seem like much fun anymore.
— John Mott-Smith is a resident of Davis who travels by plane and, at least to date, has not purchased offsets for that travel. This column appears the first and third Wednesday of each month. Please send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Crossposted from the Davis Enterprise
Published online on October 1, 2019 | Printed in the October 2, 2019 edition on page B8
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