Your Passport, Please! - Should we fly in the Age of Climate Change?

Updated: Jul 16, 2020

International tourist arrivals reached an all-time high in 2018. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), there was a 6% surge in numbers, accounting for a total of 1.4 billion individuals who crossed a national border in 2018. This ‘remarkable’ growth was unforeseen even to UNWTO’s experts, who had expected this target only to be hit in 2020.

If the numbers of international tourists seem alarming, then the figure of passengers carried in air travel is even more disturbing. According to the official data, in 2017 this category roughly reached the 4 billionth mark. More alarmingly still, is the confidence in the growth of this market that is currently estimated to have grown in 2018 by 8% (in a year!), followed by 2019 which is anticipated to grow another 6%. Not to mention that the International Air Transport Association is expecting 8.2 billion passengers transported by airlines in 2037, up from the 1.4 billion accounted in 1998. There are two main justifications behind these trends that explain the explosive hike, the continuous growth of the human population and the expansion in affluence of the rising middle-class.

In spite of the achievements from efficiency measures in emission reductions per-passenger, the sheer magnitude of the growing number of passengers, aircraft sizes and flown distance of travel is merely outpacing technological ingenuity. It also has to be stressed that technological strides in air travel are way behind other transportation sectors, seeing that long-distance electric passenger planes are decades away. This is leading to an overall increase in CO2; NOx emissions and contrails in the atmosphere at high altitude, making these exceptionally damaging. Moreover, they are all projected to continue to rise.

Given this flow of events, UNWTO’s Secretary-General Zurab Pololikashvili has declared:

The growth of tourism in recent years confirms that the sector is today one of the most powerful drivers of economic growth and development. It is our responsibility to manage it in a sustainable manner and translate this expansion into real benefits for all countries… (my bold).”

The ability to fly cheaply and reliably has made our world a more interconnected place and is aiding in regional and international development, especially on those parts of the world that are contingent on the tourism from air travel for economic development. Still, the discussion on the sustainability of this enterprise has been quietly slipping under the radar, although studies and articles are making an effort to disseminate that information, and educate individuals on the impacts of air travel, and hopefully on their volitional reduction. As a result, the prospect of adjustment is still concentrated on individuals refraining from such actions by what we hope is through an informed and conscious decision.

However, can we rely on individuals to act wisely and judiciously on this matter? Are people ready to abdicate of their yearning to enrich themselves with foreign cultures and personally testify to the marvelous edifices and mores that have stood the test of time? Are individuals prepared to accept that flying can no longer be seen as an indiscriminate right but as a privilege that requires regulation (especially for business purposes or even academic ones)? Will it be morally acceptable to fly and maximize one’s hedonistic whims or will it be seen instead as deliberate ill will towards interfering with the livability of the planet and the prospect of survival of every living being on it? In the Age of Information and with the impact of flying well substantiated, can people still justify their actions based on illiteracy or denial of responsibility, as their acts are merely a small contributor to a more significant collective harm? To illustrate, a return flight from Europe to Australia creates about 4.5 tons of carbon. For comparison sake, the Paris Climate Accords recommended a maximum per capita carbon footprint of 2.1 tons of carbon/year. This is the hard truth of ‘sustainability.’

It doesn’t seem like such a consequential action should be left entirely for the individual to rationalize and decide. A stroll through Facebook and Instagram reveals what is not just a diary of that verdict, but will stand as the museum of ‘our death by a thousand cuts.’ Similarly, individuals who consider themselves environmentally active and conscious, nonetheless retain this hankering for air travel, in what appears to be a textbook case of cognitive dissonance. Assuredly, a determined environmentalist who rides a bike to work, recycles, changes light-bulbs, buys green energy and eats vegan, but still enjoys the intermittent flight, in the end, wouldn’t be considered very green at all. By the same token, individuals should realize that the image of the young, urban frequent flyer, stopping in a different country every month or so, is just a lifestyle campaign advertisement by air companies. With this in mind, one might want to reconsider describing themselves as ‘travellers’ in their ‘bio.’

It would seem reasonable to propose alternatives to act parallel to individual determination. Already operating are forms of offsetting the carbon footprint of flying but these have been argued to do more harm than good since they invite complacency and do not appeal to overall reductions. Additionally, we should be under no illusion that such a scheme is in any way sustainable or that it hasn’t been mired in controversy. Other methods such as a carbon-based flight ticket tax have been advanced, or even a more austere approach still in the ether such as the restriction to a single return flight per year per person.

All in all, what should be done? If the desire to meet and interact with other cultures through international travel is irresponsible and ill-advised; if we can’t simply import the entire world closer to us into a multicultural pipe-dream because that is producing its own array of problems, can we then (re)learn the pleasures and joy of spending our free-time closer to home, instead of travelling to a whole different continent for the weekend? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but George Moore’s words come to mind:

“A man travels the world over in search of what he needs and returns home to find it.”

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