Think Global. Act Local!

Friday, 29 January 2010

Carbon confusion

It's been quiet for some time since my last post on 'Carbon Neutral'.

The aim of the blog is to chart our personal progress towards being carbon neutral. Our plans are to install solar heating and electricity, minimise car journeys (close to zero, and do a small amount of offsetting for the essential travel we do take) and other initiatives that I won't bore you with here. It's becoming a long road, we're delayed by our basic renovations to the house and commitments to work.

Why is it important? Because I strongly believe that those that understand the gravity of a problem (in this case climate change) have the responsibility to personally do something about it. Whether climate change is really a problem is still debated in the media, but the science stands up for itself, and the key fact is that we expect large-scale irreversible damage to the Earth's ecosystems if we remain above 350 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. The expected consequences for mankind are severe.

Yesterday was depressing for two reasons. The first: my boss told me about his attendance at the house of commons to provide expert witness on climate change. The minister asked for a show of hands of who in the room believed that CO2 could be reduced below 350 ppm, and none of our elected representatives raised their hands. We are currently at 387 ppm, and politicians think levelling off at 450 ppm is too ambitious. The science gives a very clear story for what happens when we reach 500 ppm, and it's not just coral reefs that will disappear.

The second thing that got to me yesterday made me question whether I can continue working in my job. My research is on climate change and coral reefs and I feel that an essential part of this is communicating the science to public and policy makers. But the job requires air travel, and later in the year I will have to fly to Brisbane, Bali and possibly the Bahamas as well as back home to England. We're also considering personal flights for holidays, and some long car journeys.

I can not claim that the work I do on climate change is anywhere near sufficient to justify my carbon lifestyle. I'm aware of other people, such as our neighbours, who take mutliple long-haul flights a year for non-work reasons; but I can accept this as they do not understand what the trajectories show- the only way to reduce their carbon footprint is through changes in governmental policy and social attitudes which are not possible without guidance from the science.

But what depressed me most yesterday was the action of scientists who do understand the problem and yet do no take personal responsibility, nor encourage others to do so. They think that they are exempt, because they work on the fringes of the problem of climate change. Maybe my boss does need to fly to San Francisco, Japan, Barbados, then Australia (twice around the world?!) in the next month-and-a-half. But he is deliberately, and massively, increasing the distances he travels in order to collect more "free" air miles. Describing this to our research group everyone encourages the practice and thinks that it is impressive...

Note: Below I show "externalities", these are a measure the true economic (not environmental) cost of air travel which the flyer is not paying. The amount of externalities shown below is the extra amount the flight would cost, if aviation fuel had the same tax as road transport fuel in the EU.

Here is the problem:
My boss wants to fly from Japan to Barbados, a distance of approximately 8,000 miles (east). The only cost incurred is financial.

Direct, this is 8,000 miles out and 4,210 miles back to London = 12,210 miles
2.18 tonnes + 1.15 tones = 3.33 tones of carbon (not offset)
£622 fuel tax + £311 = £933 of externalities not paid (see end of post)

He already has a return flight booked from Japan-London, so he could fly:
Japan - London - Barbados - London = 14,357 miles
3.9 tonnes of carbon (not offset)
£1,117 of externalities not paid

But, instead he finds a ticket for the same price... which will result in more free air miles in his pocket: Japan - London - Toronto - Barbados
Total = 17,863 miles
4.8 tonnes of carbon (not offset)
£1,390 of externalities not paid

If aviation fuel was taxed equally to other fuel, the ticket prices would reflect distance travelled (making us choose efficient routes) and also discourage excessive/non-essential travel (by increasing the ticket price). But if people who understand the stakes (i.e. me, and my boss) are not prepared to travel responsibly (let alone, reduce our personal consumption) then it is difficult to imagine a world where anyone else will change.

I know not to give up the fight, but I do feel at a loss as to how I personally should proceed.

(note - distance EAST from Japan to Barbados was estimated on google maps)