Monday, 7 April 2014

Beyond Flying review

I was delighted, if rather torn, by the opportunity to review about Beyond Flying, a book about the appropriate green response to air travel.

There were two reasons for being torn. One is that I think it is important to be green, and that climate change is a huge challenge facing us all - but on the other hand, most green organisations and their stances make me squirm. I am all too conscious that if it wasn't for the opposition of green pressure groups we would, by now, be generating most of our electricity from clean, green nuclear energy, which would have done far more to reduce our carbon emissions than fiddling about with flying habits.

The other way I'm a little divided is I worked for British Airways for 17 years, and keep a residual affection for the company and the airline business (not to mention having written Inflight Science) - but at the same time I have only flown once in the last 20 years, which frankly puts most of the green polemicists in the book to shame. I dislike flying and more to the point, I don't see any need for it.

The book itself is in a format I'm not fond of - a collection of essays from different authors, rather than a single readable whole - but most of the essays are interesting and well-written. I didn't agree with them all, but I agreed with bits of many and they all made me think.

The message is varied. Some think we should just cut down on air travel, keeping to essential travel (like visiting a dying relative), others think we should try to cut it out altogether (though being uniformly liberal with a small 'l', I don't think many would want to impose this on everyone else). There is a lot about the joys of slow travel, how you see more of the world doing ground travel, and a lot about substituting videoconferencing etc. for business travel. What everyone agrees is that there is no sensible way to significantly reduce the environmental impact of air travel - we aren't going to get electric airliners - and we need to do something about it.

I thought it was worth pulling out some of the key points and giving my analysis.

  • It is important that we reduce air travel as it has a big impact on the environment. Probably not strictly true. As is pointed out in the book, air travel only produces around 5% of global emissions (I can't remember if this is factored for the higher impact produced because of the height the emissions are produced at.) If we stopped all flying overnight it would make very little difference to global warming. We need to hit the 95% not the 5%. Realistically, if everyone inclined to read a book like this made the change we'd probably reduce emissions by 0.001%. This is fiddling at the margins.
  • If we made local (e.g. across Europe for us) rail travel more affordable, better and easier to book we could practically do away with local air travel. I absolutely agree. I don't know why anyone still flies to Paris when you can take Eurostar. We need far more of this kind of train travel. But to make this happen we do need good unified booking systems, and crucially cheaper rail travel. So remove the fuel subsidies from air and go back to serious subsidy of rail. And ignore the NIMBYs and get high speed rail like HS2 in place as quick as possible. Quicker than the current schedule. High speed rail is more comfortable, enjoyable, productive etc. etc. than flying. We just need to get rid of the barriers that remain and invest more.
  • People should video conference more. Absolutely - I don't think there is any good reason to fly for business meetings or for conferences (scientists take note!). This includes, as some wryly point out in the book, all the global conferences about climate change and reducing its impact. The technology is there to do it cheaper and greener without flying. Interestingly, in the opening essay, someone from the New Internationalist magazine weasels out and finds excuses why journalists still need to fly. Sorry, no. You can't do 'One rule for us, one for the rest of you.' If you need someone on the spot, use a local. I'd apply the same to all news gathering organisations.
  • There are different levels of need for flying. I think this is impossible to balance, because it is a value judgement that can't sensibly be made. You can't say 'this reason for flying is more valid than that' - or police that value judgement without having a totalitarian state. It's all or nothing.
  • If people want to travel longhaul they should take a few months off and really enjoy travelling slowly. Bullsh*t. This illustrates the worst aspect of this book. So many of the articles assume we're all middle class people doing the sort of middle class job that can be done on a train (hence it's more productive) and that we can take a sabbatical from. Tell that to nurses and teachers and factory workers and waiters etc. etc. This just isn't in the real world. I love travelling places by train and have holidayed very successfully in Switzerland from the UK by train - but that's about the practical limit in the holidays most people can manage the time to do slowly. The vast majority of people will never be able to fit this 'few months off' picture.
That last point in the list above illustrates the biggest problem of this book. The approach it advocates is only ever going to apply to such a tiny percentage of people, typically the chattering classes, that it can have no impact on climate change. But I do think we should be thinking about air travel, and particularly how we can make rail a better alternative, with some urgency - and for that I am grateful.

You can buy the book at and - and all the usual green-friendly sources.

This has been a green heretic production.

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