Is flying the new smoking?

Dorothea Hilhorst, Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies at EUR, shares her opinion about the flight behaviour of organisations.

'The IPCC report that came out last year is absolutely terrifying. The possibility of retaining global heating within 1.5 degrees is rapidly disappearing and we are facing global warming of 2 or even 3 degrees. The report contains convincing evidence of the devastation of that extra degree on biodiversity, sea level rise, disaster events, the economy, coral reefs, and so on.

Flying is an important contributor to global warming, and by far one of the most complicated. There are no signs that flying will be reduced and technical solutions to reduce carbon emissions are a long way off and not very feasible. Unlike cars, electric planes are not an option—flying a plane would require its entire space to be filled with batteries.

Taxing flying

With regards to flying, governments should get their acts together and start taxing air travel, while investing in alternatives, especially a huge expansion of fast train networks. But in the meantime, I think organisations and their employees should also take some level of responsibility.

Flight behavior of organisations

The IPCC report came out in the midst of a scandal over the irresponsible ‘flying behaviour’ of Erik Solheim, the director of the United Nations Environment Programme, who travels 80% of his time. In the coverage of the scandal, most attention centred on his flying for private purposes. This reflects a general view that private flying is a luxury, but business-related travel is just what needs to be done. But is that really true? I’m pretty sure that huge cuts could easily be made in business-related air travel.

There is now a call for environmental guidelines within the UN. What, only now? Shocking, right? But let’s be honest, the whole aid and development world—the UN, NGOs, and my own world of academic departments and development studies—is shamefully late in taking responsibility. For decades, I have not given my flying behaviour much thought either, and found it normal or at best a necessary evil to hop on a plane for every piece of research, conference or seminar.

Policy to reduce air travel

I will not go into name-shaming, but I know for a fact that some of the front runner developmental institutes and think tanks are not using carbon offsetting for their flights, and have no policy on reducing air travel. Since a few years back, I have tried to reduce my own air travel. I still have an oversized ecological footprint, but I fly significantly less than I used to.

I also—cautiously—try to bring up the topic in conversations with people I work with. Two further defences are that people start laughing when I raise this issue, because they consider air travel to be at the core of who we are; or that they point at real polluters, usually big business or an American president. Good points, but my reading of the IPCC report is that all of us need to step up the effort: governments, business, institutions, employees and consumers.

Offsetting is the first step

I also know many people that refuse to carbon offset because some offset programmes are open to criticism, or because they find this tokenistic. However, offsetting is a first step. While the IPCC focuses on the devastation of future temperature rises, it is absolutely clear that climate change is already wreaking havoc, especially for poor people in poor countries.'

This is part of a post written by Dorothea Hilhorst. She is a Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Read the whole article.

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