George Monbiot’s book Heat: How to stop the planet burning is one of the more comprehensive popular attempts to square our modern lifestyles with the reality of climate change. He describes how the energy system can be made low carbon, how we can change our diets and renovate our houses. To his surprise, he finds that there are answers to every area of modern life except one:
“When I come to examine aviation, I discover that there are simply no effective technological solutions: in this chapter I have failed in my attempt to reconcile the luxuries we enjoy with the survival of the biosphere, and I am forced to conclude that the only possible answer is a massive reduction in flights.”
That’s not welcome news, and most people have chosen to ignore it. I’ve met people who are passionate about reducing their carbon footprint, but insist on their right to fly. It’s particularly tricky when family members live overseas. Nobody wants to be told that they shouldn’t go and visit.
I’ve recently read something that puts a slightly different spin on things. Living Within a Fair Share Ecological Footprint is a book that attempts to define one-planet living and show what life at a truly sustainable level would look like. In the chapter on transport, they analyse the transport habits of residents of Wellington, NZ, as a roughly typical modern Western city. There’s a lot of maths that I won’t share, but essentially they work out that when it comes to transport, a sustainable lifestyle requires us to make a choice.
“It is perfectly possible to have a low enough transport footprint provided that flying is eliminated. There can still be some car use provided that the car is either small or has low fuel consumption.” (They assume that public transport is used for commuting.)
“If all land transport currently done using a car were done by bus with no car use, the travel footprint could accommodate the average amount of flying currently done by a New Zealander. So there is a clear choice: you can drive a car, or you can fly, but it is not possible to do both, unless a way is found to operate aircraft from renewable energy.”
How much flying is that, you may ask. They work it out as one long-haul flight every five years, if you give up the private car entirely and use public transport, walking or cycling for all other transport.
For some, this is going to be an unacceptable choice between the ‘right to fly’ and the ‘right to drive’. Others might recognise that we have a limited right to the earth’s atmosphere too, and be more prepared to work within those limits. Personally, I think this kind of choice is actually quite helpful. Rather than saying ‘you must give up flying’, it gives us a way of working out what we’d need to do to allow it. Conversely, if we couldn’t live without our cars, here’s how that can be accommodated.
How we choose is up to us, and we might want to choose differently according to our stage of life. For example, it might make sense to run a small car for occasional use when children are small, but give up the car when they’re older and take a couple of family adventures. And they would be adventures – if you’re only going to travel once every five years, you’d better take your time and make the most of it.