Airlines, You Are Not Immune to Climate Change Criticism!

Have you started to think about your winter holidays yet, a short break skiing or snowboarding perhaps? But have you stopped to consider what these holidays would be like without snow? Pretty dull I would have thought… As the world warms up these holidays could become just a distant memory, but do you believe it’s going to happen in your lifetime? Honestly, I think we are going to come face to face with our impacts sooner than most think as North America ski industry melts before our eyes and the Maldives begins to sink. It seems we are disconnected from our holidays and the effects it is having elsewhere in the world.

Probably due to the upcoming climate talks in Paris, the focus of this year’s World Travel Market’s World Responsible Tourism Day was climate change. It was kicked off with a keynote speech from Kevin Anderson who is a Professor of Energy and Climate Change. Kevin believes we have done nothing about climate change for the past 25 years. So why has the tourism industry partly ignored climate change when it could destroy the all-important destination?

The key issue is its reliance upon the airlines as its own beating heart. Planes form the arteries that transport travellers all over the world. They beat new life into economies, environments and communities, contributing to the local economy, elevating poverty and bring value to natural resources that are then conserved. Like most things, if you remove its heart it will collapse and currently, there’s no alternative. Today tourists have turned a hopeless blind eye, to challenge the airlines would mean challenging our own glorious holidays.

Conveniently the facts and figures produced by ATAG do not make airlines look like the worst culprits. Flights currently only generate 2% of all human produced CO2 emissions. But remember, tourism is not slowing down; it is set to grow exponentially contributing 10% of the global GDP by the end of 2015. Flights are simply not going to disappear. With the release of the A380 they are having to get bigger to cope with demand and airports are only going to get larger with no end in sight. We are likely to see more planes and shorter breaks as people get busier. On a 2 week, small group holiday tourists can take 3 internal flights squashing a whole country into a neat little package. The winter sees in the northern lights season which is incredibly popular, but is it just me that thinks a 6 hour round trip for just 3 days is NUTS! Our enjoyment of holidays and the unavoidable realization that there’s no alternative to flying has created a selective ignorance. Our challenge on airlines efficiency has been silenced.

We are blinded by ATAG’s statistic, its done its job, polished the airline’s ego and buffered its image until it shines. Instead of seeing a vehicle that pumps fumes we see opportunities for holidays, business and excitement. But airlines should not be immune to criticism. The lack of criticism means we haven’t seen a dramatic step in the development of efficiency even with BA’s biofuel labs and Virgins tokenism biofuel flight back in 2008! 

I am not suggesting that we stop going on holiday; not only would that be very unpopular but tourism is a huge economic driver. Tourism is a lifeline to least developing countries, offering job creation, poverty alleviation, environmental protection and multicultural understanding. However, in the wake of the VW conspiracy, it is also time to put pressure on the airlines to improve efficiency before it’s too late. We need to try and look past our own holidays before we actually come face to face with the problems we are causing. It will be sad to know that it was our own greed that made the snow melt from the slopes, beautiful islands disappear below the waves, multicoloured coral becomes baron and the fires to cross jungles.

5 thoughts on “Airlines, You Are Not Immune to Climate Change Criticism!

  1. The key message of Kevin’s contribution is that we need to reduce carbon emissions by 80%. That goal can only be achieved by a rapid de-carbonisation of the industry, more growth will only make more livelihoods reliant on high carbon tourism only to leave them without an income when the inevitable is forced upon us. He stressed that there would be ‘pain’. He also proposed paying reparations to countries that will suffer in the energy descent that is required to achieve the 80% cuts.

    Without a habitable planet, job creation, poverty alleviation, environmental protection and multicultural understanding become irrelevant.

    I don’t believe that this is a problem that can be solved using the same thinking that created it, but to end on a positive note anyone looking at an alternative to aviation can read “Beyond Flying” edited by Chris Watson and including case studies of travel without flying by Kevin Anderson, Ed Gillespie, Kate Andrews (founder of Loco2) and others.


  2. Thank you for your comment John. I do completely agree with this – ‘Without a habitable planet, job creation, poverty alleviation, environmental protection and multicultural understanding become irrelevant’. However, I do not believe that there needs to be ‘the inevitable’ that will eventually result in no tourism business at all. The fact is, we are never going to stop people from flying. It is here to stay. Too many businesses depend on it and the world is economically driven. To try to change peoples behavior and ban flights would be like banging your head against the wall. But what can we do to keep our rights to fly and to prevent the things we love being swallowed by the ocean or burnt up? Simple, we can start pressuring airlines to work harder on their efficiency and plow money in new types of fuels like we have seen in cars recently e.g the new hydrogen cars produced by Toyota and Hyundai. The technology is there but the airlines have become lazy because we have become lazy.


  3. Thank you Saul. I wish to clarify my position. Firstly, tourism reliant on high (fossil) carbon consumption is not a resilient model. If cuts are to be made then discretionary use of fossil fuel will inevitably be targeted first. Tourism business models reliant on high fossil carbon consumption will fail (not just aviation based models). Saying that it is not going to happen is like the old “houses only ever go up in value” quote so often spouted by house buyers, anyone who looks at the facts finds a different story. On a positive note I’ll repeat Kevin’s Robert Unger’s quote: “at every level the greatest obstacle to transforming the world is that we lack the clarity and imagination to conceive that it could be different.”

    Secondly, I never said ban flying. It is irreplaceable for medical emergencies, emergency aid relief work and the like.I agree that telling people not to fly is ineffective. The fact is that slow travel is a much more fulfilling experience than flying, just read “Beyond Flying” to see how. My research reveals that there is no currently scalable, economically proven solution that will solve the sustainability issues at the core of the aviation industry. Kevin voiced the same position in his keynote speech. It is not through lack of trying. Virgin dedicated $3 billion to the quest and the Sustainable Aviation group in the UK is working hard to solve the problem. Sadly. their “Road Map” relies upon carbon trading, which is essentially carbon offsetting, which Kevin debunked quite effectively in one of the WTM Carbon sessions and was called out by Responsible Travel in 2009 as “a dangerous distraction”.


  4. Of course, the high carbon tourism model is not sustainable. However, the worrying thing is ATAG are almost suggesting it is fine with their 2% statistic and offsetting this carbon impact with the benefits flights bring. Discretionary use of fossil fuels will be the first to be targeted but unfortunately these targets will only be an offsetting one. I cannot see how they can cut flights when their in such a demand. In fact they are considering an expansion of a London airport supports this theory. Politicians and other influential people are keen to keep business as usual, much like the Sustainable Aviation group, for popularity reasons and an economically driven mindset. Although, there has been talk on a frequent flyer levy which could work but I suspect that many would just pay it and carry on as usual.

    To be really honest, I believe the airline industry dependent on fossil fuels will remain for a long time yet! I haven’t seen any changes, technology development, the use of bio fuels, etc. The only thing they can do is offset and tax because the world is reliant on planes. This is why I needed to write this article, because people have become jaded by climate change and feel that we do not have an alternative so they have given up! I agree with Kevin, it is our lack of imagination but I also think its laziness and a general feeling of hopelessness. We need to act fast to prevent the 2 degree rise, many are saying are actually too late but there’s nothing on the horizon to make the required changes.

    Unfortunately, the idea of slow travel is a nice one but its not a practical one in today’s world. I often speak to people who have to travel every week for work, the Americans have hardly any holiday so need to get to destinations quickly, people are busier and work more and the BRIC market wants to see as much as possible in one trip. I agree there is no currently scalable, economically proven solution that will solve the sustainability issues at the core of the aviation industry but that’s because we are not pushing for one!

    Thanks again John for keeping me on my toes, I always enjoy our conversations.


  5. Pingback: Airlines Efficiency Lie | Conservetourism

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