Everybody Cares About the Environment Until They Want to See the Eiffel Tower
Everyone says they care about the environment. Talk is cheap. How they behave tells you what they care about. If they choose themselves over something they say they care about, that tells you their priority.
I talk a lot about how I try to avoid flying because the pollution it causes hurts people. When people talk about how much more first-worlders pollute more than others, flying contributes a lot.
But talk to someone about taking fewer flights and you will get the most self-serving, fatuous reasons why pollution is not an issue for flying. Whatever it takes to deny to themselves how when people talk about how humans are destroying the environment for future generations, and now current generations, they themselves — likely you yourself, since most of my readers are affluent first-worlders — are among the most egregious contributors to the problem.
Think about that. If you fly a few times a year, you are polluting more than nearly any of the billions of people who have ever lived, especially if you fly business or first class.
But nobody thinks so, because they don’t want to.
Some articles on how much you’re polluting:
The Economist: “Aircraft emissions: The sky’s the limit“:
a fully laden A380 is, in terms of energy, like a 14km (nine-mile) queue of traffic on the road below. And that is just one aircraft. In 20 years, Airbus reckons, 1,500 such planes will be in the air. By then, the total number of airliners is expected to have doubled, to 22,000. The super-jumbos alone would be pumping out carbon dioxide (CO2) at the same rate as 5m cars.
Note the Economist also makes fatuous claims like “Four-fifths of aviation’s CO2 comes from long-haul trips of more than 1,500km, where there is no practical alternative to flying.” No alternative? People lived without flying for millions of years. Not flying is an alternative. Would the world change if people flew less? Yes, just like it changed when people flew more. It changes with each flight, including by raising the sea levels and polluting the air.
The Economist also says “About one-in-four airline passengers are travelling for business, with the presumption that their journey is really necessary.” Again, that’s not what necessary means. Businesses used to consider it necessary to pour mercury into groundwater. Entrepreneurship means that if you change the market, so air travel would cost what it takes to clean itself, which would decrease the number of flights, the market will recover.
The New York Times, “Your Biggest Carbon Sin May Be Air Travel” documents how airlines lobby for protections to help themselves:
For many people reading this, air travel is their most serious environmental sin. One round-trip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person. The average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year; the average European, 10.
So if you take five long flights a year, they may well account for three-quarters of the emissions you create. “For many people in New York City, who don’t drive much and live in apartments, this is probably going to be by far the largest part of their carbon footprint,” says Anja Kollmuss, a Zurich-based environmental consultant.
It is for me. And for people like Al Gore or Richard Branson who crisscross the world, often by private jet, proclaiming their devotion to the environment.
Though air travel emissions now account for only about 5 percent of warming, that fraction is projected to rise significantly, since the volume of air travel is increasing much faster than gains in flight fuel efficiency. (Also, emissions from most other sectors are falling.)
From an organization called Flying Clean, “Issue Briefing: Impacts of Airplane Pollution on Climate Change and Health“:
People fly hundreds or thousands of miles on each flight and airplanes spend many hours each day aloft. A single round trip flight from New York to Europe or San Francisco produces two to three tons of carbon dioxide per person. To put this in perspective, the average American generates 19 tons of carbon dioxide and the average European produces ten over an entire year. A few flights, in other words, can completely overwhelm any attempts to reduce your personal contribution to global warming.
Airplanes achieve such extraordinary levels of energy consumption and carbon emissions by burning large quantities of toxic jet fuel. This fuel produces, in addition to carbon dioxide, NOx, sulphates, and particulate matter, all of which amplify the impact of aviation on global warming. Airplanes emit all of these pollutants directly into the atmosphere, compounding the pollutants’ warming impact. Even those innocuous-looking contrails trap heat on the Earth’s surface. The combined effect of all of these pollutants multiplies the global warming impact of aviation, making aviation currently responsible for an estimated 5% of global climate pollution.
National Geographic, “Plane Exhaust Kills More People Than Plane Crashes“:
There’s a new fear of flying: You’re more likely to die from exposure to toxic pollutants in plane exhaust than in a plane crash, a new study suggests.
In recent years, airplane crashes have killed about a thousand people annually, whereas plane emissions kill about ten thousand people each year, researchers say.
Earlier studies had assumed that people were harmed only by the emissions from planes while taking off and landing. The new research is the first to give a comprehensive estimate of the number of premature deaths from all airline emissions.
So when you consider flying to see the Great Barrier Reef before pollution destroys it, ski that great mountain before global warming makes it not snow enough there anymore, and so on, consider also that you are contributing to it by flying.
You may say you’re one of billions, what difference does it make. Well, you have 100% responsibility for your actions, so it makes 100% of the difference for what you do. My maturing as an adult who cares about others and a leader has shown me that taking responsibility for my actions and their effects on others has always improved my life. Writing about flying less isn’t about deprivation, it’s about caring more, which improves my life. I bet it can improve yours as well as future generations’.
Lying to yourself, which nearly everyone I talk to about flying does, rarely improves your life. Denial lowers your self-awareness, which is probably a main reason you aren’t content with your immediate environment and feel compelled to escape it so often.
You can create as much happiness in your life where you are. In fact, with more self-awareness you can create more happiness where you are than by flying so much.