OF ALL THE ACTIVITIES demonised by society up there with foxhunting, harpooning whales and clubbing baby seals to death, now comes the act of getting on an aeroplane.
Newspaper columnists are queuing up to declare that the recent rapid growth in the market for air travel, largely caused by the success of low-cost airlines, is causing huge damage to the earth’s climate and demanding that “something must be done”.
Participants in radio discussions warn that we are destroying the planet, contributing to global warming and behaving incredibly irresponsibly when we dare to fly for business oi pleasure. Rock stars, authors and other celebrities now arrange for their essential flights to be ‘carbon neutral’ by planting enough trees to soak up the C02 that will be created by their journey.
For those of us in the relatively cold, damp, under-populated north-west corner of Europe that is Scotland this kind of talk is all a bit alarming, because it is only by the growth of these competitive low-cost airlines that we now have a wide range of direct connections from Scottish airports. Who would have thought only a few years ago that we would fly direct from Scotland to cities such as Gdansk, Atlanta, or Dubai?
Let’s get all this into perspective. Admittedly, airline fuel is not currently taxed like other fuels, but the cost to the planet is beginning to be recognised. The EU has decided to set up a new emissions trading scheme (ETS) for air travel and has called for airline fuel to be taxed.
In fact, air travel contributes around only three per cent of the world’s man-made generation of greenhouse gases, compared with the 33 per cent or so created by power stations and over 20 per cent caused by other means of transportation, much of which is produced by gas-guzzling motors. But, whereas many car journeys can relatively easily be replaced by a bus or train trip, very few flights can easily be replaced by surface transport — you’re unlikely to take a boat all the way to Hong Kong.
And whereas there is a great deal of scope for substantially increasing the efficiency of cars by introducing hybrid vehicles, there is — as yet — no practical replacement for kerosene in powering airplane jet engines.
Surely the main target should be the 33 per cent and rising of greenhouse gases currently generated by power stations.
There are real alternatives here. We could work much harder to encourage more power generation from nuclear, or from wind and waves and we could also install technology for taking out the carbon dioxide from the emissions. It is now technically possible to collect a high proportion of the C02 and to eliminate it from the atmosphere by pumping it down used oil wells. It just costs money.
The process used to make cement is the third-largest cause of man-made carbon dioxide production, broadly similar in impact to all the airlines flying in the world today It has grown eightfold in the last 50 years, but when was the last time you heard of a celebrity planting trees to offset the construction project for their grand new home or office development?
So can we stop panicking about flying, because there are better targets which are much more likely to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Let’s concentrate on them.