To fly, or not to fly…. a harsh decision that must be made



“He knows flying is a climate crime, but he doesn’t have the money and he doesn’t have the time”

Seize the Day, Flying

By: George Monbiot

I must have listened to this song a thousand times by now, and it still pulls my heart strings every time I listen to it. I’ve only flown abroad on holiday once, on a family holiday when I was fourteen. It was indeed an enjoyable experience, one that is shared annually by ordinary hardworking families up and down the land. And yet, when several years later I started to learn about climate change, and about the impact on CO2 emissions from the airline industry, I made a conscious decision not to fly if I could possibly avoid it. To me, the health and safety of the Earth, and of future generations was then and is now far more important than yearly trips to a Spanish beach merely to lie in the sun.

That is a harsh decision, and I didn’t make it lightly. It might sound as if I’m suggesting that others should make the same decision. Well, not quite. I’m advocating reduction, not elimination. I’m proposing the idea of flying as a luxury and a privilege, not as some kind of divinely given right. Besides, if you fly less, then it becomes something to really look forward to, rather than just an annual ritual.

Fortunately, the European Union (EU), an organisation which I often criticize for all sorts of other reasons, has begun to take the initiative. From 2012 all airlines entering the European Union (EU) will have to reduce their carbon emissions under an EU regulation passed in 2007. This directive, which takes effect from 1st January 2012, means that any airline wishing to land or take off inside the EU will have to conform to the EU emissions trading scheme. I think that this is an incredibly sensible idea. It might not go as far as I would like, but it’s a start.

Sadly though, some airlines when this directive first emerged decided to take exception to an eminently sensible decision. I guessed they assumed that they could wheedle their way out of this with the help of their corporate lawyers and lobbyists. First, certain American airlines took the case to the EU Court of Justice, and then after they hadn’t got anywhere it was the turn of the Chinese to have a go. At the Paris Air Show it quickly became apparent that the Chinese were distinctly unhappy, and as a result they stalled an order for Hong Kong airlines for more fuel efficient aircraft placed with European aircraft firm Airbus. They have since threatened to follow the US example and take legal action, something that Commission spokesman Isaac Valero Ladron responded to by defiantly stating “We don’t work on the basis of threats, but on discussions.”

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), largely supported by the US, Asia and China, are resolute in their opposition to the plan and want it scrapped altogether in favour of an international agreement. The US Congressional Transportation Committee has gone further by introducing a bill which would make it illegal for US airlines to comply with the directive. Their major objection lies with the EU’s plans to tax all airlines even if they are flying to or from Europe even though it would merely mean an extra £2 on the cost of a flight from London to New York. IATA has slammed the European decision as being ‘extra-territorial’, interpreting it as an attempt to impose EU law on aircraft flying through international airspace. They also claim that it is a general tax on emissions which may contravene international agreements.

Ladron denies that it is a tax at all. “It’s a pollution saving” he retorts. “Under the scheme a pot of carbon credits will be created set at 97 percent of the aviation industry’s 2004-6 emissions. These will be divided up between carriers according to how much pollution their flights caused in 2010.” 85 percent of the permits will be given to airlines free with the remaining 15 percent auctioned off. If airlines want more permits, they will have to buy them, but if they have some extra they can sell them off to other airlines.

James Cameron from Climate Change Capital is adamant.“It’s really very straightforward” he says “This is an important sector of the economy that produces significant greenhouse gas emissions. We have found it necessary as a society to regulate those emissions, so this sector is covered.” Isaac Ladron is even more assertive, “We don’t intend to back down, modify, withdraw or amend our legislation at all” he says. It is a statement I personally applaud.

Despite fears of a trade war and calls for the EU to modify its policy, why should it weaken its stance? Growth in air travel is increasing alarmingly. In the EU for instance airline emissions increased by 87 percent between 1990 and 2006. If the EU withdrew its directive and the world attempted to broker an international agreement, all that would happen would be a constant annual round of wrangling much like the larger negotiations concerned with CO2 reduction.

The Americans at least are starting to listen it seems. American Airlines recently placed an order, worth $40 billion (£25 billion), for 460 new fuel efficient aircraft, making this the largest aircraft order in history. The new aircraft will be narrow body single aisle aircraft either from the Boeing 737 or Airbus A320 series and will come into operation in 2013. This translates as a 35 percent reduction in fuel costs per seat being 15 percent more fuel efficient that currently operated types. This, at last, is a step forward.

For too long now the aviation industry has, by international agreement, managed to get away with not paying any tax on fuel or emissions. That, to me, is unacceptable. High-altitude aircraft, flying in the stratosphere, take emissions directly to the level at which they can do most damage. Their engines produce non-carbon altitude-sensitive effects which have the capacity to increase the total impact by airlines on climate change significantly. Oxides of nitrogen (NOx) form ozone in the upper troposphere which, alongside the water-vapour seen in the sky as contrails, increases warming. In essence, the airline industry’s total impact on climate change is 2-4 times greater than its carbon emissions alone. While the industry is attempting to mitigate this, such attempts are basically eclipsed by the constant growth in air travel.

George Monbiot eloquently described what this means in 2006:

\”Aviation has been growing faster than any other source of greenhouse gases. Between 1990 and 2004, the number of people using airports in the UK rose by 120%, and the energy the planes consumed increased by 79%. Their carbon dioxide emissions almost doubled in that period – from 20.1 to 39.5 megatonnes, or 5.5% of all the emissions this country produces. Unless something is done to stop this growth, flying will soon overwhelm all the cuts we manage to make elsewhere. But the measures the government proposes are useless.\”

It might sound particularly cruel to suggest to families to reduce their flying, but I have to say that my fondest memories of family holidays are those involving lying on a beach near Charmouth, Dorset, rather than hundreds of miles away in Ibiza.

“I will recycle, I’ll use my bicycle,

I will walk into town, I’ll turn the heating down,

I’ll fill my kettle halfway, listen to everything else you say

But don’t take my freedom away…..”

No-one in their right mind would ever deny the freedom of families with children to go away on holiday. But does that freedom really have to mean that we take away their right to a future?


‘American Airlines posts largest aircraft order in history’ Green Car Congress, 21st July 2011,

IPCC, (1999) ‘Aviation and the Global Atmosphere: A Special Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’ Cambridge University Press

Kahya, Damien, ‘Air Wars: Fears of trade war over EU airline carbon cap’, BBC News Online, 11th August 2011.

Kraemer, Susan, ‘Largest Airplane Order in History – American Airlines Orders Low CO2 planes’, Clean Technica, 21st July 2011

Monbiot, George, ‘On the flight path to global meltdown’, The Guardian, 21st September 2006

Song lyrics by Sieze The Day, Flying, from album The Tide Is Turning (2006)


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