More runways – or less flying?
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.
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