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More runways — or less flying?

Sep 27, 2012 by | 2 Comments

This was ori­gin­ally pub­lished by the Guardian Sustainable Business on Thursday 27th September, 2012

The pos­sib­ility of a third runway at Heathrow air­port is back in the head­lines. Another runway would mean more flights, and more import­antly more carbon emis­sions. It remains a con­tro­ver­sial pro­posal, but the debate has been about where – rather than whether – UK air­port capa­city should be increased.

Discussion of the link between a new runway at Heathrow and the impact of avi­ation on cli­mate change has been not­able by its absence. This is frus­trating and con­cerning, but not sur­prising: flying has for a long time existed in its own bubble in terms of beha­viour change. It is simply not reas­on­able, argue policy makers, to expect people to fly less. But do the people agree?

Figures from the most recent edi­tion of the reg­ular British Social Attitudes survey do not paint quite such a simplistic pic­ture. Although a majority of people (61%) felt that they should be allowed to travel by plane as much as they liked, the number dropped drastic­ally when the caveat “even if this harms the envir­on­ment” was included. In response to this mod­i­fied ques­tion, only 18% agreed that flying should be unrestricted.

These find­ings sug­gest two things. Firstly, that the link between avi­ation and cli­mate change is not well under­stood by the gen­eral public (if it were, responses to the two ques­tions would be broadly the same). And secondly, that many people are (in prin­ciple) in favour of some restric­tions on flying.

However, the rela­tion­ship between people’s views on cli­mate change and their flying beha­viour is more com­plex than this. Previous studies have shown that the people who claim to be most con­cerned about cli­mate change are often the ones who fly the most. And in the British Social Attitudes survey, respond­ents who said they were very con­cerned about cli­mate change reported flying more in the past 12 months than those who said they were not at all concerned.

Air travel doesn’t cor­relate in a straight­for­ward way with envir­on­mental aware­ness – but it does with afflu­ence. Historically, aero­planes were the pre­serve of the very wealthy – and when you look at the global pic­ture, this is emphat­ic­ally still the case. Only a tiny minority of the world’s cit­izens reg­u­larly fly, and these are con­cen­trated in wealthy nations.

Even in the UK, it is the wealthy who fly the most. The well-off pro­fes­sional classes, who are more likely to express con­cern about cli­mate change than people in poorer socio-economic groups, are accus­tomed to a life­style that requires reg­ular flying, and don’t seem to be in a hurry to change. So is there no hope of con­vin­cing those who claim to care about cli­mate change to start leading by example, and redu­cing the amount they fly?

Its worth reflecting on the fact that only very recently – in the past 30 years, or less – have the majority of British cit­izens been able to access cheap flights. The British Social Attitudes survey found that younger people were more likely to express a will­ing­ness to tackle cli­mate change by redu­cing the amount they flew (although even among this group, the figure was still only 34%). So it is not incon­ceiv­able that public opinion about flying might shift again – driven by an increas­ingly climate-savvy younger generation.

But it is per­haps organ­isa­tions and busi­ness – more than indi­viduals – that could really start to shift the social norms on flying. Through policies that reward employees for low-carbon travel, or give addi­tional time (and flex­ib­ility) for workers who take the train to Europe, employers could create the space for good inten­tions to be trans­lated into mean­ingful action.

We have very quickly become used to a pace of life – and a style of doing busi­ness – that is pre­dic­ated on an illu­sion: that we can rap­idly reach far-away places without adversely affecting our nat­ural envir­on­ment. As the Heathrow debate grows louder again, we should be asking how we can reduce the need for more air­port capa­city, not just pon­dering where we should put the new runway.

2 Comments + Add Comment

  • If every­body in a society claims to believe in God and Heaven and Hell, why is there sin?

    Do they not care? Do they block out the know­ledge tem­por­arily? Do they hope to somehow escape? Do they intend to repent ‘later’? Do they follow the herd? Do they think their own sins are too small to be noticed? Or less than their neigh­bours? Do they bal­ance the costs of now against the future? Do they see their future selves as sep­arate from them­selves? Is their ration­ality over­whelmed by their imme­diate desires?

    Or could it be that they don’t truly believe? That they know the cat­echism, and can recite it on demand, but they only say it to fit in? Because they wouldn’t want you to think of them as the sinful unbe­liever they are?

    People look at Al Gore’s carbon foot­print, at the thou­sands flying around the world to cli­mate talks in exotic places like Bali and Rio and Durban, and they wonder. If it’s OK for them, why isn’t it OK for us? It’s easy to make up self-justifications with an example like that.

    Maybe they think air travel should be restricted for *ordinary* people, but a suf­fi­ciently small rump of the affluent could keep doing it without an impact. Using energy, driving places, con­suming, it would be OK if it was just us doing it. There’s enough for us, but no more. Restrictions are essen­tial, yes, but only on other people.

    It’s amazing, really, how often it is when people call for restric­tions, reg­u­la­tions, and bans, it’s for things that won’t affect them.

  • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle — and the greatest of these is Reduce!

    This goes for energy use too!

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