Though the scientific and moral case against flying is robust, the reaction to making it has made me lose faith in the power of individual action. I think the only solution is a carbon price: see why in my new introduction.
There is a strong imperative for individual action. Arguments like “the plane will go anyway” and “my little ten tonnes doesn’t make a difference” are, of course, valid if there really is just one of you. However, individual actions are cumulative, both over time and over society. Annual holidays can add up to a Hell of a lot of carbon over a lifetime, and a huge amount over the population of the developed world. If nobody acts, millions or even billions could die. That’s a lot of blood, even if you’ve got plenty of hands to spread it on.
The plane will go anyway.
This argument only stands up to scrutiny if a tiny number of individuals stop taking holidays. An aircraft will certainly run with a couple of empty seats if you and your friend decide to go on holiday by train instead. However, even a fairly small percentage reduction in individuals travelling by air will mean that certain routes require fewer flights to service them and, as capitalism dictates, the airlines will cut back where fewer planes will do to maximise their profits.
Air travel has to have much higher occupancies than other forms of public transport. A bus might sometimes run with only one person on it, but it’s just not economic, particularly for the budget airlines, to leave when a plane isn’t full. Consequently, they are very sensitive to reductions in passenger numbers. If over a reasonable period ten or twenty fewer people were to fly a route, a couple of flights would be cut to make sure that the planes which did go were absolutely packed.
If half of flying holiday-goers were to decide to go by train or holiday in the UK instead, then it would certainly not be the case that the planes would go anyway; airline companies with shareholders to consider would be forced to slash numbers of flights, leading to massively reduced emissions.
Further, air travel is an industry growing at an alarming pace—if consumers vote with their feet now, airport expansion will not take place, which will ultimately lead to lives being saved. These are aircraft and takeoff slots which don’t even exist yet, so they can’t “go anyway”: today’s punters can have a big effect on carbon emissions tomorrow.
My actions as an individual won’t make any difference. A tonne of carbon? Might be a significant fraction of my carbon allowance but it’s probably only going to save 0.00001 of an African life. Why bother?
It is true that if a handful of individuals make the choice to stop taking holidays by plane, nothing will happen. The Earth will warm by 1.9999 instead of 2°C and the effects will be, give or take the unpredictability in climate models anyway, exactly the same as they were before.
However, it is not true that this absolves you from individual responsibility. A single person, or even a few tens or hundreds of people cannot effect a significant change whether they stop flying, cycle everywhere or even if they were to reduce their carbon emissions to zero. But society comprises individuals, and if the whole of society takes action, big effects will be seen.
People won’t listen. It will take government action and/or heavy taxation before people will do anything. I’m going to fly until someone makes it uneconomic for me to do so.
It would be very naïve to expect that my consternation, this website or the entire green lobby will convince the people of Earth and save the World. Indeed, much of tackling climate change is going to require changes in the political and economic infrastructure which will actually be impossible without multilateral state intervention.
There are a few reasons that it’s still important both to be convinced and to act on a personal level.
Firstly, until there is a more widespread consensus amongst the public, we simply aren’t going to see as many green policies as are needed. Politicians have some tough wrangling ahead if they are to take the necessary action hard enough and fast enough, and even the least cynical of us know that they won’t do so without a mandate from the people, lest they not get elected next time. Awareness is good, but voting with your feet is even better. We need to let them know that we’re up for fighting climate change.
Even if we could elect a greener government, though, laws, bills and taxation take a while to trickle through, and the process, complete with preceding debate, will take months or years before demand for air travel plateaus, let alone falls. As a collection of individuals, we can each act now, and save lives. Just don’t get on the plane. It’s that easy.
Finally, why not tell your friends? Your action as an individual is a contribution, but if everyone convinces someone else, the benefits snowball into something big—hopefully big enough convince the politicians and set in motion the saving of the Earth all at once.