politicians, air travel and climate change

It is human nature to overlook or excuse one’s own hypocrisy by saying (or thinking) that other people are worse. This isn’t really good enough though, particularly if you are going to try to convince other people that they need to change the way they act.

It is much easier to accept the things that we want to believe are true, while ignoring those facts that are inconvenient. This may be OK on day to day things, but it is something we really should try to eschew in politics. It is also something which every one of us should try to avoid when it comes to minimising the serious dangers presented by human-induced climate change.

I’ve just finished reading “Heat: How to stop the planet burning”, a book by George Monbiot which is one of the better things I’ve read on climate change precisely because it does attempt to be honest and comprehensive. He is as willing to criticise pro-conservationists as he is to can coal companies when he believes there is self-deception (or worse) happening. As he says in this column:

If the biosphere is wrecked, it will not be done by those who couldn’t give a damn about it …….. It will be destroyed by nice, well-meaning, cosmopolitan people who accept the case for cutting emissions, but who won’t change by one iota the way they live.

Whilst he looks at what policy approaches governments and business should adopt, he also seeks to convince us all to take personal responsibility for changing our behaviour, rather than just blame governments and deny we have anything much to do with it. After all, governments are unlikely to make the significant changes needed if they don’t believe the population will wear them. Of course, changing our individual behaviour is also mostly a waste of time unless society as a whole does the same (and the rest of the planet is basically on board in their own way too).

Ironically, the main reason I managed to find time to finish all of Monbiot’s book was because I had a big chunk of uninterrupted time to read it – as I was flying from Sydney to Perth and then back over to Brisbane again later that same day. Monbiot sets a very high target for emission reduction – 90 percent reduction by 2030, which he believes is necessary to be reasonably sure the temperature rise can be kept to two degrees– any higher than this and the tipping points may start kicking in which will make bigger temperature hikes irreversible no matter what we then do. This target is more severe than the 60 per cent reduction by 2050 which the CSIRO advocates. However, despite the big reductions suggested, he looks at the main areas of activity to assess if it is technologically and economically feasible to make the necessary cuts in emissions. Rather promisingly, he assesses that we can do it without major reductions in our overall quality of life– if we take major action and take it now. However, the one area where he believes it will not be feasible is air travel – “long distance travel, high speed and the curtailment of climate change are not compatible.”

In deciding what sorts of policy and behavioural changes are needed to address the risks of climate change, we really need to stick to the science and the facts and try to avoid just picking solutions which match our prejudices or ideology, and rejecting ones that don’t. This is easier said than done, as the sciences of measuring carbon and other emissions and assessing the economic costs and benefits of various actions is not inch perfect.

If you are to accept Monbiot’s measurements, about the only escape clause is that he has made his assessments based on the UK, and Australia may have a few extra options when it comes to low emissions energy production, efficiencies and possibly extra savings through carbon geosequestration (extra only because we generate such a high proportion of our energy through coal and gas)

A little over a week ago I and other Democrat Senators announced that we would be trying to be carbon neutral in our campaigning during the 2007 election year. This will be done partly through funding offsets to balance our activities, and partly through trying to reduce the overall amount of carbon emissions we’re responsible for. While offsets are better than nothing and at least try to factor in the environmental cost of greenhouse emissions, we really need to be changing our behaviour significantly so there is a major decrease in the total amount of emissions.

By far the biggest area of emissions for politicians is air travel. It does sometimes irk me to see environmentalists (of which I consider myself one) flying all over the country (and the world) campaigning on the dangers of climate change with very little recognition of the massive greenhouse impact which flying has. I presume part of the reason it has got less attention so far is because air travel is not counted under the Kyoto Protocol – a neat loophole which may have helped us kid ourselves for a few years longer, but obviously cuts no ice with the atmosphere.

I won’t be reducing my flights to zero overnight, so I will have to endeavour to use carbon offsets where necessary (such as through this type of website). However, I will need to try to cut back the flights as well. (Monbiot is very harsh on the notion we can just pay to offset our emissions – saying “buying and selling carbon offsets is like pushing food around on your plate to create the impression that you have eaten it”).

To have some sort of measurement of whether I am cutting back my total amount of flying, I am in the process of tallying up the total number of flights and air miles I have undertaken in recent years. The initial bit of data I’ve had compiled suggests that in 2004 I took 260 individual flights (which does not necessarily equate to 130 return flights, as some of them would have been a series of legs before I ended up back home). Some of these would have been as short as Sydney-Canberra, while there were a few of the Brisbane-Perth variety, as well as to Christmas Island and Nauru. Longer flights naturally produce more emissions, although the short haul ones are even worse on an ‘emissions per kilometre’ basis.

I must say that figure of 260 seems a bit large – 5 flights per week – and I will need to check the details again. It is probably a higher than average figure for an Australian politician, although it also would be lower than many Ministers and shadow ministers. However, it’s fair to say I – and many other Australian politicians – fly a bloody lot, and really should be starting to look at ways to do a lot less of it.

Anyway, time for me to get to bed. I have a long flight ahead of me tomorrow. (Going from Brisbane to Hobart – not to campaign on climate change at all, but for a Senate Committee inquiry hearing into funding for disability services).

PS: A Brisbane to Hobart return flight equals 3582 kilometres, which according to this site will produce the equivalent of 1.06 tons of carbon, which I can offset for $22.41. However, according to this site it generates 4.89 tons of carbon, which will cost $88.02 to offset. I can see this is going to be messy, but one has to start somewhere.

UPDATE: This piece in The Guardian (found through The Daily Briefing) by the head of the International Air Travel Association seeks to portray air travel in a better light with respect to greenhouse emissions. I didn’t find it overly convincing I must say, but the comment thread following on from it covers most of the points that could be made in response.

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  1. Senator Bartlett,

    Well done for recognising the impacts of your day to day activities, especially with regards to air travel. I am also aiming to minimise my carbon emissions by commuting on Sydney’s natural gas buses, using 100% green power at home and eating less meat. Fingers crossed each little bit will help.

    Averil Bones

  2. Wow… I also count my airmiles but for the normal reason. I travel a lot for work but we need a paradigm to change before we can cut it down – which I would gladly do. If we tell a group of prospective clients that they can come to a teleconferencing facility and exchange ideas with blah blah on blah blah, guess what the show rate will be and guess how quickly the competitor who eases in and meets them first hand; has a beer etc. will squash you out! I am all for offsets…. If I tell my wife that mowing the lawn less (less emmission and more sink) and letting the lantana go (it is a faster grower than native trees) is necessary to offset my carbon debits, will you let me sleep on your floor? I’ll bring my own oxygen.

    Seriously though, politicians should all stay in their electorates and debate on teleconference. Better still, by text chat with an automated programme to edit out waffle. I can’t stand the slagging and powerplays that characterise the place. I’m sure no-one really wants to go to Canberra. The fact that ACT is the highest income state baased on government salaries is a sad indictment for Australia.

  3. I agree that on their own carbon offsets can be a cop-out, but when combined with other measures they can play a part by providing some sort of pricing mechanism. This can help to actively restrict or reduce emissions. The big drop in air fares is obviously a big reason why air travel has expanded so much, which in most other ways is a good thing as it has opened it up to many people who couldn’t afford it before. How we manage a big reduction in air travel without just making it the preserve of the wealthy again is a question I don’t have an answer to at the moment, but that’s not a good enough reason to do nothing about air travel.

    I also don’t think it’s just about ‘cushy lifestyles’, although there’s no doubt that richer people will be better able to just keeping doing what they already do if the only response to climate change is to make things like flying more expensive.

    As part of Rob’s comment suggests, the competitive reality of business (and to some extent politics too) means that many people have been drawn in to buzzing continually all round the country. Having to catch a plane every day of the week isn’t cushy, it’s a pain in the neck, but many of us are on the treadmill/merry-go-round now, and it is hard to break that unless we do find ways to force a change in the paradigm.

  4. Congratulations to the Democrats for planning to reduce your carbon emissions. Being carbon neutral during an election campaign will be quite a challenge, I think. Reducing emissions is the way to go, though, rather than just offsetting (as Tom has pointed out). Good luck with your efforts!

    I travel for work, and pleasure. Long distance travel is exciting, either around the country or the world, and I’d hate to give it up. Travel can be addictive! So I’ve still got some work to do on that issue…

    The 4.89 tons figure for the Brisbane-Hobart return seems a bit high to me. I do that trip several times a year. The GreenFleet calculator (at http://www.greenfleet.com.au/index.asp) tells me that its about 1.33 tons. I’d say, then, that the first figure you got is much closer to the truth than 4.89.

  5. Just been on the site. Don’t understand how a single person driving an average car for one year uses 4.3t whereas my 300th share of business airtravel (just a big flying bus which is a concept we should be embracing!) is 18.75t.

    At my family’s rate we can plant 132 trees/annum to come even. I worked in plantation forestry and planted 1660tree/ha at a rate of 2000ha/annum for 3.5 years. Given the company had 1660 employees, does that mean I gained credit of 7000 trees or do the company owners now get to benefit from owning the trees as an offset credit as well as selling the wood? If so, unless you have loads of money and own land to plant up and make even more money out of, you are doomed to a life of global exploitation. And if the trees are eventually used for some industrial process – do they count as a negative?

    Off to mow the lawn – most decisions are pragmatic.

  6. Regardless of the issue or ideology, I really don’t understand people who tell you that this issue / lifestyle / religion is really important, but don’t seem to make any effort to change their own lifestyle.

    I’ll concede that immediate wholesale changes can be difficult, but if you’re not taking any steps, why should people listen to you. (that’s a generic rather than specific you.)

    So congratulations on doing what you can. I appreciate as a politician, you have obligations to travel often though.

  7. The answer lies in societal discipline.

    People don’t change what they do unless legislation is in place – with a high level of enforcement to back it.

  8. I like Rob’s idea. What’s wrong with teleconferencing? What’s wrong with video conferencing?

    We have the technology so why not use it?

    In so many ways our politicians take aeons to catch up with what everyone else has been doing for years. Blogs are a good example.

    I’m less inclined to think Australians won’t change their lifestyles. Some don’t and won’t, but remember when recycling was so successful the recycling plants couldn’t cope with the volumes?

    If you can come up with some way to make it easy, like council provided recycling bins did, they’ll do it. If you expect a working parent with three young kids to do the morning drop-off routine with a bicycle, forget it. If you offer them the opportunity to make a $5 investment in a farm that’s turning into a carbon sink you might have better luck. Or the opportunity to invest $10 in a solar car development project.

    No doubt there are people around with more imagination than me, but good on the Democrats for setting an example.

  9. i wonder how mutch forrest the govt has ganed control of before they thought that carbon trading was a good thing .
    hears a thought
    a news paper cuts down all the trees turnes them into paper.so they can tell every one who reads them how cutting down trees leads to global warming.

  10. While I can definitely see the point that carbon offsets are a second-best option, the simple fact is that it is impossible to do much about the greenhouse impact of flying as an individual.

    Were appropriate regulations to be passed placing an appropriate cost on those carbon emissions, there are technical solutions that will allow us to fly without the greenhouse impact. The two main options are the use of biofuels (more difficult than in vehicles because of the more exacting fuel requirements, but doable), or the use of hydrogen (also doable, but requires planes to be redesigned to make space for the bulky fuel). But these can only be implemented at a global level, either by direct legislative requirements by the major powers, or carbon emissions costs rising to the point where the alternatives become cheaper; there is essentially no way for individual actions to push this kind of change through.

    While I try to do my bit to reduce my personal greenhouse emissions (I purchase green power and ride a motor scooter to work rather than drive), individual small-scale solutions won’t make much difference in the end. Only the brute force of governments acting together will tame the greenhouse genie and, eventually, put him back in his bottle.

    So buy offsets if it makes you feel better, but don’t stop flying. If you can assist in getting that dastardly parliament to actually do something about legislative targets for reduced emissions, and a price mechanism to enforce it, you’ll have done far, far more for the planet than you ever could by foregoing a few flights.

  11. Trees that are deliberately cut down by people, or become victims of Mother Nature’s more vicious attacks, eventually provide fossil fuels.

  12. Teleconferencing and video conferencing definitely sound like good ideas – very time saving as well.

    The reason recycling has been so successful is that every household received a bin for which they had to pay, whether they wanted it or not.

    Now, I believe, some parts of Brisbane are having their recycling bins emptied weekly (instead of fortnightly) on a trial basis.

    My concern is not only about incurring extra costs for a service that smaller households might not require – but whether or not it will have the net effect of encouraging people to buy more goods in cartons, bottles etc – instead of minimising their contribution of waste across the board.

    After two weeks, our recycling bin is seldom more than half to three-quarters full, for a household of two.

    We don’t buy newspapers. We make most of our milk up from powder. This produces one tiny plastic bag, instead of numerous plastic bottles and cartons.

    We eat mostly fresh food which produces only organic residue. We don’t drink alcohol (no pile of bottles and cans), and we buy a lot of things in bulk to reduce the number and total volume of recyclables.

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