Monday, June 28, 2010

What to think about flying

Today I had a friend from my university come by for a visit.  I dub him The Researcher.  The Researcher had a good talk with me about all kinds of subjects from taxation theory to climate change to good coding practice and one thing that came up was his regret that his lifestyle was so terrible in terms of CO2 output.  I did a quick bit of math with some online calculators and concluded that his flight from his home to Toronto and back output as much carbon as my entire lifestyle for a year including a flight home for Christmas.

I wonder what to think about this.  Certainly there is plenty of vitriol directed at people who drive huge gas guzzling SUVs around the streets of Toronto but it seems to me that those thoughts are directed at the wrong targets.  The CO2 cost of flying is absolutely immense so if we are really concerned about reducing climate change rather than just bitter at people who buy expensive things we can't afford then our ire should be directed at the airlines and those that use them.  I certainly advocate moving to efficient vehicles but I see far more complaint against vehicles than planes than the relative emissions would justify.

It makes me wonder what the most moral standpoint to take is.  Should I simply ignore what everyone else does and concentrate on only my own lifestyle or should I spend time and effort trying to push others to change how they live?  Unfortunately I think we as a society spend a lot more time taking potshots at safe targets than we do actually looking at the numbers involved.  It is safe from a social standpoint to complain about big companies and governments since they aren't going to meet you at a party and be bitter about your views but complaining about things that most of the people you know do on a regular basis may well land you in some very uncomfortable social situations.

Saying "Why doesn't the government do more about climate change?" is simple and risk free.  I haven't advocated increasing my tax load to accomplish these changes or suggested which programs should be cut to pay for the difference.  It is similarly true that you don't see "Big Oil companies should take more safety precautions" regularly combined with "and I am in favour of price increases at my local gas station to pay for it."  Saying "Anyone who flies instead of taking the train, boat, or bus is a climate criminal." is significantly more likely to cause problems, not the least of which is that so few of us never fly anywhere.

I don't begrudge The Researcher his lifestyle.  I am certainly in no position to moralize, both because I do fly and because I don't feel like this is a moral issue as opposed to a practical one.  The government fixing the negative externalities of flights with additional taxation is a move I would support and I am confident The Researcher would too.  I do wonder though at how effective our complaints are when we focus them on those who will not inconvenience us personally when they hear of them.


  1. I find it really interesting to see another person's perspective on environmental initiatives. Being immersed in environmental programs I definitely have a different perspective on what's being marketed. I find it quite interesting that your perception (I'm assuming) from advertising, conversations and general news that personal vehicles are one of a big focuses of personal transportation. And honestly it is one large focus because so many people own a vehicle and therefore share that impact in common with others (An easier marketing base). However I also was intrigued that the "researcher" was aware he had an impact on the environment through flight and I'm assuming (again) that this is due in a large part because he may fly more often or recently booked a flight and saw the advertising for CO2 offsetting of flights or the impact of flying. It is good to see that you were able to easily find a online calculator to get a rough comparison of lifestyles in CO2 measures.

    Environmental marketing is essentially commercial marketing where you target your biggest "consumer" group with the most broad commonality between them. However this is what the public sees, behind the scenes there are quite a large number of businesses and companies looking into air travel. The cost, both monetary and environmental, are starting to add up and the company/business's have found that saving money ties in (many times) directly with reducing environmental impacts which in turn paints their company in a better public light. A great example of this phenomenon is the movie - Up In The Air.

    The established view on environmental programs (from my perspective) is that grassroots initiatives/individual targeting has a much stronger impact then lobbying the gov't (Municiple, Prov., Fed.). Laws, taxes, etc. are usually pushed forward because there is a large individual base asking for it. Because of this large base a law can be initiated and the rest of the population is brought on board through forced attrition. And due to this "forced" attrition a lot of pushback from the population is received and period of doubt, annoyance, skeptisism ensues followed by eventual acceptance. A fantastic example of this is the blue box/bag recycling program. When it was first initiated it was adopted by the "early-adopters", tossing a few incentives out and promotions a bunch of the "fence sitters" joined the cause. Soon it became "community law" to recycle. If you walk into a neighbourhood and see everyone's driveway dotted with recycling except one yard, you'll likely have a negative thought toward that household because they aren't conforming to the "accepted" behaviour. It's unfortunate that so many initiatives have to take this long and tedious route to become accepted and not every initiative succeeds but I believe that more can be done targeting individuals and initiating the grass roots program rather than making statements like you mentioned "gov't fix this, or fix that".

    This whole thing probably seems a bit broken and confusing but I just wanted to basically agree with your sentiments and give you a bit of a story as well. Also this is the second time I had to write it as the blog failed out and I forgot the copy paste everything first.

    Take it easy bud!

  2. Carbon Footprint

    Sadly it's not isolated to just the flight (which I can purchase carbon offsets for online--not sure how reliable the sites are but I have done this before). It's a combination of living in suburbia when I would like to be a lot closer to where I work so I could ditch the car (and sell it!), the dietary restrictions to a substantial amount of meat in my diet. Not living in a higher density area to take advantage of economies of scale for the transport of goods. Living in a house that needs far too much money invested in it to be reasonably efficient, particularly in the winter. Unfortunately there is a conflict of lifestyle interests in trying to resolve this so it won't be anytime soon.

  3. I also talked to my mgmt about working remotely from TO but they weren't in favour of that idea. That would have been a nice solution to the situational issues while still preserving the primary interest in being so far north.