Monday, May 07, 2007

Flying rocks...

If there is one thing that really, really angers me in modern politics it is this attempt to label flying something ugly. To treat the wonder that is the ability of ordinary people to see the world as disreputable. If you really think we need to stop flying to save the planet then make that case but sound bloody morose about the idea of stopping people flying. Don't try to strengthen your argument with the combination of small-minded elitism (an unpleasant combination in itself) and kill-joy puritanism that an attack on flying almost invariably constitutes. Max Hastings' latest example is a classic of the genre.

"Now, in a conversion that would command the admiration of St Paul, he declares that "binge flying" constitutes a huge threat to the global environment. "If the travel industry rosily goes ahead as it is doing, ignoring the effect that carbon emissions from flying are having on climate change, we are putting ourselves in a very similar position to the tobacco industry.""

I don't want to stand in the way of a good buzz-word but this whole notion of 'binge flying' is utterly bizarre. Binge drinking is when one drinks a lot in an unhealthily short period of time. It isn't just drinking too much in general. Now, the person who flies more than once in a day is still something of a rarity. Surely alcoholism is a better analogy.

"He readily admits the irony that he, of all people, should articulate such a warning. He appeals for moderation, for setting some limits on our insatiable appetite for travel: "We now live in a society where, if people have nothing to do on a Saturday night, they go to Budapest for 48 hours. We fly anywhere at the slightest opportunity, 10 times and upwards a year. This needs to be addressed with the greatest urgency.""

How is the idea that if "if people have nothing to do on a Saturday night, they go to Budapest for 48 hours" seen as anything but bloody wonderful? What a brave new world that has such opportunities in it. A trip to see a fascinating city that would have been a serious undertaking even for the richest but a generation ago is now no more of an event than a trip to the cinema.

"For those who inhabit the developed world, opportunities for travel represent the most significant new personal freedom of the past half-century. Even as recently as the 1960s, hitch-hiking to Greece and Turkey was a big deal for the adventurous young middle class. Africa and Asia were high-ticket destinations, South America and Australia almost off the map."

Yes! Now he gets it. A massive, life-enhancing, glorious new freedom. I remember speaking with my grandmother about her flights back when civilian air travel was still something of a big deal. People used to dress up in their best clothes, to be seen. It was a rare luxury of the rich.

"Today, it is possible to fly almost anywhere for a few hundred pounds, and we all do. Every arriving jet at Nairobi or Ho Chi Minh City or Buenos Aires disgorges its crowds of package tourists and backpackers. Short breaks, which mean intensive plane use, are booming. Short-break destinations include Capetown and Dubai."

Isn't this absolutely bloody marvellous? In the film The Fog of War Robert S. McNamara lamented that during the Vietnam war they couldn't understand what was going on in the minds of their adversary. He used this as one explanation of why policy there was poorly formed compared to the Cuban Missile Crisis. In the Missile Crisis we faced off against an enemy we understood. Now we're all flying to Ho Chi Minh City and meeting the Vietnamese.

With so many people travelling to so many places might they learn something and create a more understanding and sensible world?

Certainly I came back from China, and Russia before that, with a new understanding of the peoples of those countries. I also saw first-hand that sometimes when Greenpeace tells you a catastrophe is going on they're entirely lying. Equally, we've started seeing a lot more Chinese tourists on the streets of London since we made it easier for them to get visas. Most of them seem to be enjoying themselves. Every happy Chinese tourist face fills me with hope that they'll go back and want their resurgent nation to reconcile itself with the wonderful Western world they've discovered.

"Common sense tells us that all this is environmentally disastrous. Yet common sense also tells us that tourism is doing great things for the economies of poor societies all over the world. Carbon emissions soar as a result of flying flowers and vegetables to Europe and America from Africa and Mexico. Yet if that traffic stopped, millions of needy people in the growers' trade would suffer."

Indeed. So let's make sure, if we really need to curb emissions, we try and do it while keeping regular flight possible rather than dreaming up draconian and chronically inefficient new taxes on aviation.

"All this leaves many of us as confused as Ellingham. Relatively speaking, the travel boom has hardly started. In the decades ahead, many more millions will possess the means and the desire to fly further and more often. The Chinese, for instance, have only just begun to discover the joys of holidaying abroad. Suggesting to people who live in newly emergent economies that they should forgo travel is comparable with the modern western enthusiasm for saving Africa's great animals, after slaughtering them wholesale for a century or two."

Eh? It's rather different isn't it?

Trying to save animals after slaughtering them is changing your mind and then regretting your old decision. Trying to stop developing nations discovering leisure travel you enjoy yourself is an active hypocrisy.

"Even in the west, it is dangerous politics for a government to seek to check the electorate's passion to fly, just as few democratic nations dare meddle with the freedom to drive. All credible curbs must be based on pricing. Yet if it becomes harder for the poor to travel while the rich stay airborne, this does not sound good on the hustings."

No. Small-minded, elitist, kill-joy puritanism rarely does.

"The best and simplest way forward would be to tax aviation fuel, to end the crazy anomaly whereby moving a plane is cheap, while driving a car is expensive almost everywhere in the world save Iran and the US. But it is almost impossible to reach an international agreement on taxing aviation fuel that would stick. No government will act unilaterally, with the prospect of watching its aviation industry migrate elsewhere."

Indeed. That would be stupid. However, taxing flights has a very similar effect. If Britain continues to ramp up taxes on flights watch Paris Charles De Gaulle or some other European airport in a country with lower aviation taxes claim Heathrow's spot as European hub of choice.

"Ellingham suggests a £100 "green tax" on tickets for all flights to Europe and Africa, £250 to more remote destinations. The first benefit of this would be to deter short-haul flying within the UK. It is absurd that it costs far more to take a train to Newcastle or Edinburgh than to catch a plane there. Lots of us, including me, love trains and are only deterred from using them by the cost."

Perhaps a better solution is for improvements so that taking the train is not so chronically, bizarrely expensive. Privatisation was working better than it has been given credit for. It should have been improved instead of being clumsily and partially reversed. However, bear in mind that high-speed rail travel, the only kind that can effectively substitute for planes, creates more carbon emissions than flying.

"Some destination countries would benefit from discouraging low-budget travellers, because the environmental costs which their visits impose outweigh the cash that they spend. The Samburu National Park in Kenya is currently threatened by the building of two 500-bed hotels. Samburu is a small area, famous for its elephants. Tourists in such numbers will overwhelm its fragile ecosystem. Any rational long-term view of Samburu's interests would come down against the new hotels, and in favour of extracting more money from fewer tourists. The projects will go ahead only because a handful of people will profit handsomely from their construction."

There are two possible solutions to the problem of a hotel being built that shouldn't be in Kenya:

  1. Increase taxes on aviation and reduce all air-travel until it becomes uneconomical to build hotels near a safari park.
  2. Encourage the Kenyan government to make its process for approving new building plans more transparent and democratic.

Which sounds like the more sensible course of action?

"The low-budget traveller creates dilemmas for destinations all over the world. The mayor of Venice, Massimo Cacciari, wants a levy of €1 a head imposed on the 20 million tourists who come to the city each year, to help with the huge municipal costs they impose. Venice is currently struggling to enforce the ban on picnicking in St Mark's Square, and on walking the streets bare-chested or in bikini tops.

If this sounds pompous, the citizens of Venice reply that, at present, a great host of visitors spend next to nothing and conduct themselves in a manner that diminishes the grace and beauty they come to see. Other Italian cities, including Rome and Florence, are drawing up codes of conduct to restrain boorish behaviour by tourists."

They should do that. The Vatican already imposes special standards of decorum upon its tourists and they don't seem to mind. The new levy Venice is considering sounds like a very measured way to ensure tourists pay their way. Why try to replace this with a generalised attack on travel?

You would replace a specific and tailored response to the problems in Venice with an attempt at a one size fits all policy to defend tourist destinations in general. Venice has very different problems to most tourist destinations. Other areas would love to have more visitors.

"Here, it is easy for a good democrat to explode: "Do you want to restrict the wonders of the world to rich bastards?" But it is an obvious truth that the more people who visit a given place, the greater damage they inflict upon it. Ellingham again: "Balancing all the positives and negatives, I'm not convinced there is such a thing as a 'responsible' or 'ethical' holiday."

Holidays are a good of themselves. They are enjoyed, good for and valued by the traveller. That does come with an environmental, financial as well, cost. Expecting flights to be a net positive for the environment as well as those taking them isn't realistic. Most human activity wouldn't pass that measure.

"The bad news for the environment is that it is impossible to believe that the global travel boom will stop. Whatever is done in Britain, or in the western world at large, amid our consciousness of climate change, many other nations which have only just begun to experience prosperity have no intention of depriving their citizens of its privileges.

As with other responses to climate change, however, this is no reason for us to do nothing. Even if the British government is obliged to act unilaterally, it must be right to impose higher costs on air travel through taxation. Indeed, it would be irresponsible not to do so."

Why? He's just said, rightly, that Britain's choices are of limited importance when faced with growing emissions in the developing world. Why on Earth is acting unilaterally still the responsible choice? It sounds pretty vain to me.

Throwing away "the most significant new personal freedom of the past half-century" in the name of not stopping the global travel boom is a rather dismal idea.


Anonymous said...

your attacks on puritans (comparing them to the joy-killing Max Hastings) are really quite unfair

Matthew Sinclair said...

Good point, well made.

Anonymous said...

I don't believe CO2 emissions are responsible for global warming, but I do believe we should be doing far more to conserve a precious resourse, i.e. oil.

There is currently no viable alternative on the distant horizon when it comes to replacing the oil-based kerosine fuel that jet engines use. Oil is a finite resource that really ain't going to last for much longer if we continue to consume it at our current levels.

Until a viable alternative looks likely, we're going to have to rely on kerosince in the forseeable future. We're not going to be able to fly anywhere if we exhaust what remains of our oil reserves.

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