New Zealand parents often tell their children not to eat too many sweets. Our primary schools spend a lot of time talking about suitable diets. We do this because we have the long term interests of our children at heart.
I find the contrast between that and how we currently approach climate change disheartening and distressing and especially when I consider all the families I know who are now taking flying holidays with their children.
This is a really uncomfortable topic. But we have to talk about it, and do so urgently.
We should, by now, all know the math. There isn't any personal activity we or our children can engage in that is even remotely close to air travel in terms of the sheer volume of greenhouse gas emissions it produces.
Google tells me that a Boeing 747 burns roughly 12 litres of aviation gas per kilometer. That is pretty good economy for carrying 500 people a short distance. But not if you are flying 18,819 km, the distance from Wellington to London and back. In that case, every person on the flight is responsible for consuming 450 litres of fuel. To put that in perspective, imagine if, instead of taking that trip, you revved up an average family car in your driveway to 100km/hr and at 6 litres per 100 kilometers you would need to leave it running for 75 hours or 3 days. Then repeat that for each family member that took the trip.
If you did that in your neighbourhood, you would be called a crass and thoughtless person, and people might wonder what sort of children you were raising.
In addition, these figures don't address the fact that the warming effect of aviation gas burned at altitude is around 2-3 times the impact when burned at sea level. So make that 6-9 days of car revving for each family member.
We also know that the emissions from our plane trips this year and this decade will continue to heat the planet for hundreds of years.
It isn't necessary to bang on about how bad things will get if we keep doing this. We already have an inkling from worldwide weather trends in the last 12 months. The thing to bear in mind is that the emissions we are contributing so hugely to through air travel are a severe threat to the future lives of our children, a much greater threat than a bad diet.
In the face of all of this, we have to accept, I think, that at the moment we are responding essentially with the instincts of small children:
- We can see that we should stop this behaviour but wont because it would inconvenience us, be 'too hard' and 'everyone else is doing it'.
- We don't like to talk about it. We mumble an excuse and move away if it comes up.
- If we have to confront it, conversations quickly get tense as we get defensive about our reasons for keeping on with this clearly inappropriate behaviour.
- We avoid mentioning the issue with our own children because we know they would instantly spot our hypocrisy.
In addition, and maybe this is the worst of it, by taking them on a flying holiday with us, we implicate them in our bad behaviour.
In uncomfortable situations like this we are anxious for good news. Here it is. All the members of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), that is, essentially all United Nation member states, five years ago adopted a goal of carbon neutral growth after 2020.
You may wonder how or why the ICAO picked on 2020 as a benchmark in the first place. I don't know. No one does. It has no bearing on reality, no bearing on trying to avoid dangerous climate change by keeping within the global average temperature rise within 1.5 of 2 degrees, and isn't intended to.
It's the best that can be politically extracted from 190 odd nation states who know that their home populations are acting like children and wont forgive them if they try to have a serious conversation about reducing airline emissions.
Here are some of the problems with the ICAO goal:
- the ICAO has been promising action for ages. It got the mandate to work on reducing aviation greenhouse gases in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol.
- The ICAO plan does not cover domestic aviation - that's about 30% of aviation emissions.
- By 2020, annual emissions will be around 1000 megatonnes. And there is no plan to reduce them at all, just to hold the annual level to about 1000 megatonnes.
- Even after making heroic assumptions about how much new aeroplane design developments can cut back on some emissions, the ICAO has calculated that it can only meet its target with offsets.
That's right, the emissions from our holiday flights in 2020 will be fine because someone else somewhere else (the details don't need to concern us) is going to promise to grow some trees and keep them growing until around 2400 or so. I don't think hubris really captures it. Its the sort of fantasy that only children could indulge in.
And lastly, and here is the real kicker, the ICAO isn't going to do pretty much any of this. It has just announced that it is about to reset the start date of the proposal so it wont be compulsory for any nations until 2027, and will allow for whole sectors of aviation to aggregate their emissions. So there will be lots of delay and massaging of numbers. We all know what happened with the fraudulent carbon credits under New Zealand's emissions trading scheme, and, with the fantasy thinking of offsets thrown in, I expect you can see where all of this is heading.
This also means, obviously, that when your local airline tells you it supports the ICAO approach, has purchased some electric cars or is putting solar panels on the roof of the airport, or planting some trees for you to fly over in their planes, but has not yet switched its entire air fleet to bio-fuels or done something as blindingly obvious as stopping its air-points programme, you can just politely ignore them.
There is a technical term for this refusal to face reality. Its called cognitive dissonance. That is, juxtaposing two contradictory ideas and finding ways to manage the mental chasm between them. In this case its not just the contradiction between our personal carbon emissions from air travel and stated concern about climate change, its the fact that as parents we care for our kids while managing the secret knowledge that we risk literally shortening their lives and most certainly the lives of their own children.
I am selfish. My worry is that future children will look at our thousands of travel photos alongside the news headlines about record-setting heat, storms, floods etc, and wont just label us childish. Sociopaths is the terms we use for people with a sense of entitlement so strong that they would prefer mass death over personal discomfort and unease. But maybe they will just call us cowards. Then again, they might get inventive and call us child abusers.
I think we need to be uncomfortable for a little bit. We are adults. Adults can examine the situation rationally, and tell our kids that the hyper-mobile life of flying holidays we have been creating for ourselves and them is going to put us all in danger and has to go on hold. We all have a habitable planet to save right now.