Should I stay or should I go now

Climate scientist Kevin Anderson recently traveled by train to a climate conference in Shanghai instead of taking the plane. It was a 20 day round trip. Here is his argument why climate negotiators, researchers and campaigners should set an example and dump air travel. Anderson sets out his arguments as a mixture of “provocation, parody and some different ways of thinking about emissions from our travel”

My previous posts argued that UN and World Bank staff should give up the delights of business class and travel economy instead – Anderson’s post is radical in that it questions air flight altogether. Given what he calls “climate science basics” i.e. we are about to reach a catastrophic tipping point if we dont de-carbonize the economy, he is probably right.


10 days of peace and quiet ahead (Pic: septuagisima, Flickr)

The bottom line of his argument is that in 20 years time at current emissions rates, the world will have passed what is considered safe levels of concentrations of carbon dioxide – therefore can any air travel, even by climate negotiators and campaigners really be justified. He argues against flying to conferences on the following points:

1. Our perceptions of what is essential changes once the trip becomes uncomfortable

“Attending an ‘essential’ conference to save the world from climate change in Venice, Cancun or some other holiday resort, is perfectly do-able by plane. However, the rising emission trends don’t seem to have registered the sterling work we have achieved at such events. Perhaps if we flew to more of them, emissions would really start to come down – we may even spot some flying pigs en route. Instead, junk the plane and get together with a few other UK speakers heading to the same event, cram yourself in a trusty Fiat Panda and set off for Venice. Somewhere around Dartford, what was previously ‘essential’ begins to take on a different hue, and by Dover a whole new meaning has evolved. Essential has become a relative term, dependent on: Can we get there by plane? Are our friends also attending? Is it somewhere nice to visit (or name-drop)? Will we be taxied around? Are we staying in a plush hotel?”

For Anderson, despite these characatures, the message is clear:

“Travelling slowly forces us to travel much less, to be much more selective in what events we attend, and to endeavour to get more out of those trips we do take. Fewer trips and potentially longer stays: not rocket science – just climate change basics.”

2. Travelling by plane sends very clear market signals to burn more fuel:

Please buy some more aircraft that will operate for 20-to-30 years and have a design life of 40 years. Please build some more airports. Please divert public transport funds so passengers (and shoppers) can travel to the airport on low-carbon trains or trams…”

3. The opportunity cost of slow travel is low when he considers what he would have done staying at home – several European flights for work (new emissions), commuting to work (lost work time), climbing (lost work time). He is also more productive – on his return leg he wrote a scientific paper that would have taken him 6 months back in the office.

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