When Does a Flight Become “Binge Flying”?

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In their eternal war against the scourge of carbon emissions, greens have had a tough year of it, what with the near collapse at Copenhagen, the controversies at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the slapstick comedy that is the U.S. Senate’s attempts to deal with energy policy.

But environmentalists have had some good news: not long after he was elected, new British Prime Minister David Cameron—the same guy who convinced the Tories to go green—canceled plans to build a third runway at London’s Heathrow Airport, and also said he would block new runways at London’s secondary airports, Gatwick and Stanstead. Cameron’s justification: supporting more air travel would lead to a rise in Britain’s carbon emissions, as British transport minister Teresa Villiers told Elisabeth Rosenthal of the New York Times:

“The emissions were a significant factor” in the decision to cancel the runway-building plans, Teresa Villiers, Britain’s minister of state for transport, said in an interview. “The 220,000 or so flights that might well come with a third runway would make it difficult to meet the targets we’d set for ourselves.” She said that local environmental concerns like noise and pollution around Heathrow also weighed into the decision.

Of course, with the UK facing massive government debt and Cameron preparing Britons for “once in a generation” spending cuts, holding off on a Heathrow expansion may be a fiscal decision as much as an environmental one. But Britain’s Climate Change Act requires the government to reduce emissions at least 34% below 1990 levels by 2020, and there’s no doubt that aviation will play an increasingly large role in that problem—the British government says that while air travel accounted for just 6% of the country’s CO2 emissions in 2006, that could rise to up to a quarter of emissions by 2030. Air travel will be especially important on an island country like Britain, where budget airlines like Ryanair have given middle-class Brits the option of cheaply jetting off anywhere in Europe—as anyone fortunate enough to encounter a British hen party in the bars of Dublin, Prague or Tallinn would know. (Globalization! Sometimes it’s kind of annoying.) Blocking airport expansion at Heathrow represents a major victory for environmentalists in Britain, who’ve been fighting the third runway for years. (Among the leaders of that coalition is a group that absolutely has the best name of any environmental organization I’ve ever encountered: Plane Stupid.)

But wait a minute: it’s far from clear that refusing to expand Heathrow will actually do much to reduce global aviation emissions. For one thing, as Rosenthal points out, governments around the world are going in the opposite direction: Chicago, Seattle and Washington all opened up new runways in 2008, and New York’s JFK will reopen its largest runway next week after an expensive overhaul. And Heathrow is a major hub for international travel—not to mention a nightmare of delays—so if it fills up, many of the connecting flights it might have serviced will just be pushed to other airports. Unless something is actually done directly to discourage people from flying—like a carbon tax in jet fuel that would directly raise the cost of travel—just refusing to expand an airport in one major city doesn’t seem likely to make a major difference. (Though the unfortunates whose houses are buzzed by Heathrow’s planes might appreciate it.)

Underneath all this, however, there’s a suspicious undercurrent of class issues. Environmentalists have coined the term “binge-flying” to describe the rapid increase in air travel that is being driven in part by the growth of budget flights. The math is simple: as no-frills airlines like EasyJet and AirAsia have radically reduced the cost of flying, helping to bring what was once the province of business travelers and the well-off to any yob who has 15 pounds for the Ryanair flight from East Midlands to Krakow. There are many places in Europe now where it might cost more to get to the airport than it does to actually fly. The skies have become democratized and globalized—and that’s bad news for carbon emissions.

But there’s something hypocritical about environmentalists criticizing binge-flying because the truth is nearly all of them fly as well. Take me for example—in 2009, I probably flew around 50,000 miles, going to climate change conferences in Copenhagen and Abu Dhabi, vacations in Vancouver and San Francisco, reporting trips to New Delhi and London. That equals roughly 11 tons of CO2, give or take a few hundred lbs., just from my air travel. That’s a lot—nearly twice the total emissions of the average Chinese person, according to new statistics from the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Does that make me a binge flyer? Or would I get a pass because I was often using those flights to report on environmental issues? (Not that the climate system cares one bit why I was burning all that carbon.) It seems classist, to say the least, to look at tourists on a Ryanair flight and call them binge flyers, and give a pass to someone like Al Gore, who clocks tens of thousands of miles in the air each year. (Yes, Gore and many others offset their flights, but the truth is that no one has really figured out an effective offset system.) It’s the same logic that can lead people to label a 5,600 sq. foot mansion—even one with lots of solar power and a toilet system that fertilizes the lawn—as the “greenest house in America.”

The dirty secret about air travel is that there is no green alternative to flying, other than staying home. (The exceptions are short-haul flights that could be replaced with train travel, and governments would be wise to try to invest in high-speed rail, as even the Obama Administration is slowly doing—but Europe’s far superior train system hasn’t prevented the rapid growth of air travel on the continent.) There are no electric hybrid airplanes, and alternative fuels—including biofuels—are still in the early developmental stages. Air travel demonstrates just how difficult it really will be to massively reduce carbon emissions with current technologies without making significant changes in the way we live. (And as Andrew Revkin points out, the new carbon emissions stats show that rapid growth in the developing world will more than surpass any reductions in the developed world, at least for now.) When it comes to flying, most of us don’t seem to want to do that. We want the convenience of being able to travel quickly, whether for pleasure or for work—and over the past several decades we’ve built our world on the principles of speed and convenience. I know few people who really want to sacrifice that for themselves, who would choose to stand still, rather than stay on the move. Today, Ryanair even announced that it was planning to offer $7 standing-room tickets for some of its flights (which ironically would be greener than the way we fly now, packing on more people per flight).

We may decry binge flying, but when it comes to carbon, most of us are binge living.