Five and a half years without a flight

also published Dhaka Tribune 1 February 2022

How can you justify this trip in your carbon budget?

It was in the year after the Rana Plaza building collapse that I asked this question of my host. The location was a dinner table at the most expensive hotel in Dhaka, where he and two dozen colleagues from around the world were staying.

They had flown in from four continents for a grand total of three days, of which only one was a full day in Bangladesh, meeting people dealing with the consequences of Rana Plaza.

An important subject in which to take an interest. But the people around the table were fund managers and analysts, not experts in structural engineering, labour rights, or factory management. They could have sent two of their number for much longer and both learned more and expended less money and emissions. 

This was obvious to both myself and my host; the only reason for my invite was that we had met two times when I worked in ethical investment, and he had heard I was in Dhaka. 

Having myself done a Masters dissertation on carbon taxes in the early 1990s, we also shared an interest in tackling climate change and carbon footprints, so my question was rhetorical. In a time of climate crisis, it’s not easy to justify most flights for work conferences or short haul holidays.

My motivation as someone living in Dhaka at the time, was more about how little outsiders could usefully learn from brief visits than carbon footprints. We both knew people who consciously avoided air travel years before flygskam (flight shame) was popularized by Greta Thunberg. I also did not plan on refusing the free meal. 

It is now five and a half years since I last went on an airplane. Being fortunate enough to afford an air fare and to on occasion be offered a free press ticket, I have not been constrained by cost. Nor is it just personal commitments and the pandemic; it has simply been the most convenient and therefore most comfortable choice for me to spend only one night beyond the borders of London in the last 67 months.

“Covid-22” permitting, this will change soon, and I will be on a plane fully aware that air travel accounts for between 2 and 3.5% of global carbon emissions (which is about a tenth of all emissions from transportation).  I won’t feel too guilty even though I think it is long overdue to implement proper carbon taxation and remove the hundreds of billions given in subsidies to air travel. 

Air travel is integral to the world today and at best, it is most likely such measures can only slow down the rate of growth of demand, and not reduce demand itself as the world’s population and economy get bigger. 

Of course, it is right for consumers and investors to seek to positively influence businesses, but such action has its limits. Sometimes an entire way of doing things needs to change. This is often hard to accomplish, even for those working from the inside. 

It does not actually matter how well-informed or well-intentioned the individuals working within institutions are if the systems of which they are a part are dysfunctional, or no longer fit for purpose. 

Business schools will for a price try to convince you otherwise, but more astute observers of human nature (or viewers of The Wire) know that however good key individuals may be, rotten systems tend to be good at reproducing themselves.  

Some months before the start of my non-flight streak I wrote about the various power-brokers and politicians converging on Davos (Short memories, Big Crisis DT Jan 2016 and recommended the writings of economist Ha-Jun Chang and the excellent film version of The Big Short directed by Adam McKay. 

I don’t wish to alarm anyone but some of the same corporations and systems named in the Big Short now promise to take ESG issues seriously and help the world to net zero even though they all conspicuously failed to either prevent the Great Financial Crisis of 2008 or root out its causes.

As a fan of McKay who paid to watch his most recent film Don’t Look Up on the big screen, I hesitate to add to articles feeding Netflix’s algorithms, but he is in my view one of America’s sharpest satirists and takes his politics seriously. (Examine the depth and breadth of accusations he researched to throw at Dick Cheney in Vice if you are in any doubt.) 

Much of the coverage of DLU follows McKay’s lead in describing its story — about a Trumpian style presidency and an institutionally inane media side-lining scientists’ warnings about a civilization-killing comet heading to Earth and instead serving the obsessions of a psychotic plutocrat — as a metaphor for the climate crisis. It is indeed all of this, but also much more. 

McKay is too funny and clever a writer for it to be otherwise. Most apparent is the film’s morality tale about two intelligent people, an astronomer and a broadcaster, seduced by the trappings of fame (and each other) before one of them escapes to seek family and forgiveness. Running all the way through is a critique of the internet’s ability to turbo-charge the dissemination of misinformation and conspiracy theories, and to deepen societal divisions, with the public willingly following along. 

Everything is exaggerated for comic effect of course but is all so plausible it makes you ask what exactly in the world is worth saving?

I know I’m guilty of taking comedy too seriously, but then comedians can sometimes take serious issues more seriously than the purported grown-ups who are supposed to be in charge. 

Politicians routinely dumb down issues. Aptly then, Boris Johnson is daily being skewered for hypocrisy over parties held in breach of UK Covid rules. But Labour leader Sir Kier Starmer follows suit by letting the press pack set his agenda instead of leading with his own, as there is ample cronyism and incompetence in the government for the opposition to attack.

No doubt, it has long been the norm for the needs of people and planet to be co-opted or subverted by media trivia as well as corporate lobbyists and unfit leaders, but this seems especially dangerous when the world must face up to the threats of climate chaos.

Because I support the polluter pays principle and am planning a flight, I’ve naturally been researching airline carbon offset schemes. Regrettably, these seem to be as lacking in credibility and as oxymoronic as they sound. 

It seems the best I can hope for is some decent in-flight entertainment. 

(postscript – I did safely fly soon after writing)