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Should I rant about climate change while also being a frequent flyer?

The hypocrisy of climate change and flying that confronts us all

Should I rant about climate change while also being a frequent flyer?
Cate Lawrence

The last couple of weeks have been momentous for politicians, community and religious leaders, and activists as they flew to attend COP26 to stop the world imploding into doomsday scenarios.

No sector was safe — transport, overpopulation (ok, maybe not a sector per se), meat and dairy, or forest logging — from the ire of people desperate to assign blame.

One thing that attracted plenty of wrath is flying — and I’m part of the problem.

Private jets are bad, m’kay?

flying by private jet
It’s no surprise that flying private jets has a heinous impact on the environment.

It’s no surprise that flying private jets has a heinous impact on the environment. According to The Daily Record, over 118 jets carried world leaders and business executives to COP26. This blasted 13,000 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere, over what 1600 Scottish households burn through in a year.


But anyone who thinks we’ll see Joe Biden, Prince Charles, or Jeff Bezos sitting in cattle class with the rest of us is dreaming.

I’m not sure what’s wrong with the pointy end of the plane, though. They won’t have to binge-watch Game of Thrones in the middle seat.

 

By the way, according to Check Your Facts, the photo used in the tweet above actually depicts aircraft parked at the New Orleans Lakefront Airport in 2013 for Super Bowl XLVII. During the event, New Orleans-area airports hosted more than 800 private aircraft for the game.

If this isn’t a blatant disregard for the climate, then I don’t know what is.

Is it time to stop business flying?

Ok, the bigger issue is, should we stop business flights altogether?

Politicians, in general, are big fat hypocrites. A UK report recently found that ministers and civil servants took nearly 107,000 domestic flights in Britain in just one year, an average of 293 flights a day.

That’s a lot of meetings that could have been an email.

Yes, I am a frequent flyer

I am guilty of being a frequent flyer.

In 2019, I took about 20 flights. Most were within Europe, the UK, and trips to Israel, Japan, Australia, and Hong Kong. The vast majority were work trips where I attended conferences on behalf of publications. It was fun. I hung out with some amazing devs, startups, companies, hackers, and general tech nerds.

But I also got to visit my family in Australia (which took six flights altogether). My parents are old, so they can’t fly halfway to reduce the burden or visit me — I’ve seen them three times since 2014. Travel to Australia is expensive and time-consuming.

While the last year has taught us that we don’t need to attend every event in person, it’s also taught us that we like attending events in person. Strange things happen!

There’s nothing like sitting with a bunch of crypto journos as they tell you how they’re going to stitch up Vitalik Buterin in a press room at a conference.

I also rather enjoyed listening to someone from Berlin going for a job interview at a startup at the table next to me in Hong Kong, slagging off his hopefully former CEO. (Don’t do your interviews in cafes, folks.)

You don’t know desperation until you see a horde of tech journos fighting for calamari at a press event. Or amusement until you see an American pitching anal sex toys to a room full of VCs.

You just don’t get this stuff on a zoom call.

But it’s not only these weird interactions that we miss without travel.

The impact of COVID-19 not only meant staying at home, but it also meant that, like many people, I missed weddings and funerals. Getting up at 3 am to watch a funeral online back in Australia wasn’t a great experience.

The luxury of time vs. money

You often see articles where people pledge to stop flying. One thing these people have in common who pledge low-fly commitments is the luxury of time. They’re usually not American, in jobs where you get 14 days annual leave a year.

Or from Melbourne, 30 hours door to door to get to Berlin.

In case you are wondering, I looked up traveling by boat to Australia (legally). From the Netherlands, it takes about 42 days. If you want me to write about this, donations are welcome!

Is it time for a tax on flying?

There is no tax on jet fuel — the only fossil fuel banned from being taxed by international treaty.

One idea from a campaign called A Free Ride is to tax frequent flyers (yep, that includes me). These are the 15% of flyers who take over 70% of all flights. They assert that the  strongest predictors of frequent flyer status are ownership of a second home abroad, and household income of over $135k — this is not me.

The dream of Aviation Beyond Borders

Recently I came across a body that optimistically calls itself Aviation Beyond Borders. They have a lofty ambition: to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, “supported by accelerated efficiency measures, energy transition and innovation across the aviation sector and in partnership with Governments around the world.”

The usual suspects get a mention in their action plan:

  • Sustainable aviation fuels
  • A transition away from fossil fuels
  • Electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft
  • Greater efficiency at airports
  • Carbon offset schemes

These are great ambitions. I want hyperloops and VTOLs (hydrogen and electric) developed. But I also want investment in rail in general, including bullet (maglev) trains.

Ways to assuage your guilt in flying

The David Suzuki Foundation has some good tips:

  • Take direct, non-stop flights to avoid high emissions during takeoff and landing.
  • Choose airlines carefully. Some airlines are better at ensuring they have a full passenger load to fly more efficiently.
  • Take daytime flights due to the heat-trapping effect of contrails and cirrus clouds at night, sunlight reflecting during the day.

I’d also personally suggest:

  • Prioritize airlines that use biofuel and invest in tech innovations like electric batteries and hydrogen. At the very least, learn about this tech. Follow companies on social media and share their posts. Help build a movement.
  • Offset your environmental footprint by paying to reduce greenhouse gas emissions elsewhere. Examples of programs include Sustainable Travel International and Native.
  • Commit to flying less. There are loads of community groups dedicated to not flying like Flight Free USA, No Fly Climate Si, Pledge to Fly Less, Flying Less.

 

To be clear, I don’t intend to stop flying. I want a future where flying is accessible to all, not just those with the means, whether they’re flying by jumbo jet or VTOL.

But I also want a world where there are very few reasons for flying in personal jets. And for those who do fly like that, to use electric batteries, hydronic, or at worst, biofuels should be compulsory. This is a commitment their wealthy users could instigate, especially if they commit to an investment in R&D, to ease their guilt.

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