Is it ethical to fly?

Continuing our long debate, here is another entry.

It seems to me that there are four possible long-term outcomes of the conflict between preventing climate change and travelling long distances quickly:

  1. We come up with a way to keep flying without doing too much climatic harm. This could be sequestration of carbon from biomass, it could be carbon neutral fuels, it could be something unanticipated.
  2. We come up with another transport technology that is carbon neutral and just as good or almost as good as flying, such as very high speed trains.
  3. We cannot reconcile long-distance high-speed travel with the need to mitigate, so we essentially stop doing it. A few people are still able to get from New York to London in a day, but it becomes out of almost everyone’s reach.
  4. We cannot reconcile long-distance high-speed travel with the need to mitigate, so we choose not to mitigate and wreck the planet.

How does the choice to fly look, in relation to each possibility?

  1. It’s not your fault you lived in the era before green flying was possible. That said, it may have been immoral to choose a mode of transport you knew to be (a) unsustainable and (b) harmful to others. It may be laudable or morally necessary to minimize flying and/or compensate for your impact by purchasing offsets.
  2. It’s not your fault you lived in the era before non-flight green travel was possible. That said, it may have been immoral to choose a mode of transport you knew to be (a) unsustainable and (b) harmful to others. It may be laudable or morally necessary to minimize flying and/or compensate for your impact by purchasing offsets.
  3. Again, you are on the hook for choosing an unsustainable option – specifically, one that had to be harshly curtailed in the future. Of course, if you are (a) selfish and (b) desirous of seeing the world, the danger that flying will be either restricted or far more expensive in the future creates an incentive to do a lot of it now.
  4. Flying was hardly a laudable thing to do, but it probably didn’t affect the outcome. Once we get into a runway climate change situation, it doesn’t matter much whether emissions in year X were Y megatonnes or 1.5Y megatonnes.

The larger question of whether future outcomes affects the morality of present decisions must also be contemplated. It does seem a bit odd to say that an action in 2007 was right or wrong as a consequence of technologies developed later. This post really cannot provide any answers to these questions – though my position remains that virtually all flying taking place at present is immoral – but perhaps it will provide a new way to consider things.

Author: Milan

In the spring of 2005, I graduated from the University of British Columbia with a degree in International Relations and a general focus in the area of environmental politics. In the fall of 2005, I began reading for an M.Phil in IR at Wadham College, Oxford. Outside school, I am very interested in photography, writing, and the outdoors. I am writing this blog to keep in touch with friends and family around the world, provide a more personal view of graduate student life in Oxford, and pass on some lessons I've learned here.

16 thoughts on “Is it ethical to fly?”

  1. The basic problem with the way you approach this problem is you act as if you personally flying somehow causes the world to be wrecked. No. Rather, everyone acting as if their personal choice doesn’t matter causes the world to be wrecked. The fallacy is to move from the intuitive absurdity of the 2nd statement to the need to believe in the truth of the first.

    No matter how much you don’t fly, you only make a difference insofar as one less jet flies. And even then, one less jet, this doesn’t seem like much.

    What would matter is if your choice actually did convince others not to fly. It seems unlikely that more than 5 or 10 percent of the population will ever act on this kind of higher moral ground. Ergo, choosing not to fly is a failed moral act because it can never bring about what it claims to.

    Put differently, the problem is treating morality as the study of how not to commit evil. It’s as absurd as choosing not to fish because overfishing is killing the cod stocks. Who would ever believe this to be an effective solution? Rather, fish as much as you can, and use the profits to lobby the state to ban fishing. Or, something else perhaps less hypocritical – but anything but choosing not to act because of some moral higher ground.

    Not flying is just that – not moving, inaction. Inaction is a morality of resentment, of hatred, of “I’m better than you because of this logic”, which condemns rather than brings about solutions.

    Not flying re-enforces the false ideal that the world can be saved through personal consumer choice.

  2. It does seem a bit odd to say that an action in 2007 was right or wrong as a consequence of technologies developed later.

    Quite right. This post serves no purpose.

  3. Whoa…

    “Not flying re-enforces the false ideal that the world can be saved through personal consumer choice”?

    Thats quite an assumption that I would argue… you have to start somewhere, and personally, to avoid being a hypocrit, it is best to start with oneself and set an example, no? It certainly would help buy-in, as many of the skeptics and deniers like to point to Al Gore’s ginormous mansion and all of the jet-setting he does… Not to mention its the premise of something like Project Porchlight, which does make a difference.

    Certainly your fish example is just as absurd… Overfishing is what is causing the problems, so if you overfish and use the profits to help ban the practise, at that point its too late (if you completely deplete the stock), or at best, a worse problem than when you started. The true solution is to not overfish in the first place. The problem, which you mention, is you are only one individual, how do you get everyone to not overfish?

    “Ergo, choosing not to fly is a failed moral act because it can never bring about what it claims to.”

    Failed on the societal level, perhaps, but on a personal level it does exactly what it sets out to do, but ultimately that depends on your own conscience and what you deem to be “right” and “wrong”. If you can look at yourself in the mirror after flying Canada to New Zealand, then great, and if you ponder over it in guilt, then maybe you shouldn’t fly…

  4. “Failed on the societal level, perhaps, but on a personal level it does exactly what it sets out to do, but ultimately that depends on your own conscience and what you deem to be “right” and “wrong”.”

    If you care about the world, or fish stocks, then why are you putting your clarity of conscience above them?

    This is the ultimate problem with minimize-my-personal-harm based morality – it puts your own clarity of conscience above the solution of the problem. What if the solution to the problem can be brought about only by yourself being part of the problem?

    Basically, morality based on the rightness of individual choices is totally useless here.

  5. So how bad is aviation for the planet? The show, Does Flying Cost the Earth?, starts by highlighting the importance of perspective in addressing this question. Three pie charts present the case. Concerned that your carbon consumption is out of control? Then worry about air travel: taking about two flights a year costs the average Briton 12 per cent of her individual carbon pie. Or worried about how governments propose to cut national and global emissions? Planes spew 6 per cent of the UK’s carbon dioxide, but only 2 per cent of the world’s. By 2050, that 2 per cent is expected to creep up to about 3 per cent.

    This is where the exhibit first makes an inevitable compromise on thoroughness. Captions fail to make it clear that the pies show carbon dioxide only and omit other greenhouse gases. But partly because of those other gases and their intensified effects at high altitude, the IPCC estimated in 1999 that air travel accounted for roughly 3.5 per cent of the human-caused greenhouse effect in 1992, a figure predicted to climb to 5 per cent by 2050, though with large uncertainty. More recently, the UK’s Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution suggested the 5 per cent should be revised to 6–10 per cent.

  6. Samuel Johnson

    “There will always be a part, and always a very large part of every community, that have no care but for themselves, and whose care for themselves reaches little further than impatience of immediate pain, and eagerness for the nearest good.”

  7. First, no matter what data you use, two very simple variables make a big difference: how far you travel and how many passengers are in your vehicle. Air travel is much maligned as a source of CO2 emissions, and the Berkeley research confirms that airplanes do emit more than trains or buses per passenger mile. But the differences aren’t as large as you think, and the real reason air travel contributes so much to our collective carbon footprint is that we use planes for longer trips. That’s not to say you shouldn’t go to your Grandma’s house for Thanksgiving, but if she lives across the country, any means of getting over the river and through the woods is going to have a hefty carbon footprint. Likewise, designing bus routes and train schedules that fit rider demand—along with encouraging urban development that gives transit more appeal—makes a big difference, owing to the environmental downsides of traveling alone.

    Secondly, you can’t discuss the environmental impact of getting around without considering the infrastructure that makes travel possible. We have a tendency to focus on the environmental impact of the things that move—the cars, trains, and planes we see getting from point A to point B. But Chester and Horvath found that in some cases, construction is the biggest polluter. Roads were responsible for more particulate matter than tailpipes, for example. For rail travel, operating the trains actually accounts for less than half of a system’s greenhouse-gas emissions. The implication: Making concrete and asphalt in a more environmentally friendly way can be just as important as getting vehicles to run more efficiently. In other words, it’s not just the road you take, but what it’s made out of, too.

  8. Planes ‘threaten climate targets’
    By Roger Harrabin
    BBC Environment Analyst

    The UK may have to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 90% by 2050 so the aviation sector can continue to grow.

    That is the warning from the government’s official climate advisers, the Climate Change Committee (CCC).

    It would mean even bigger cuts than the 80% drop on 1990 levels already planned for households and industry in Britain.

  9. One additional consideration, on air travel:

    If the world’s elites ever really accept that climate change has the potential to kill us all, we can expect that harsh systems of rationing will emerge. That is just one more reason for which the next few years or decades might be the last chance any of us get to see the world quickly and comfortably.

  10. No Free (CO2) Lunch for Frequent Fliers?
    By ANDREW C. REVKIN

    Elisabeth Rosenthal has a fascinating story in The Times examining the growing debate over whether there’s a legitimate way to ride an Airbus or 777 without remorse over the resulting emissions of greenhouse gases. The piece focuses on the green tourism company Responsible Travel and its decision to cancel the carbon offsets it had offered since 2002, through which money flows to projects avoiding emissions as a way to compensate for all the tons of CO2 flowing from big jet engines. A top company official said it appeared that such offsets could actually be encouraging more flights over all:

    “The carbon offset has become this magic pill, a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card,” Justin Francis, the managing director of Responsible Travel, one of the world’s largest green travel companies to embrace environmental sustainability, said in an interview. “It’s seductive to the consumer who says, ‘It’s $4 and I’m carbon-neutral, so I can fly all I want.’ ”

    There are plenty of other companies still offering offsets, including Terrapass, where you can currently get an offset package sufficient, the company says, to compensate for four short, three medium, and two long-haul flights for $50.60.

    Paying More for Flights Eases Guilt, Not Emissions

    By ELISABETH ROSENTHAL
    Published: November 17, 2009

    In 2002 Responsible Travel became one of the first travel companies to offer customers the option of buying so-called carbon offsets to counter the planet-warming emissions generated by their airline flights.

    But last month Responsible Travel canceled the program, saying that while it might help travelers feel virtuous, it was not helping to reduce global emissions. In fact, company officials said, it might even encourage some people to travel or consume more.

    “The carbon offset has become this magic pill, a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card,” Justin Francis, the managing director of Responsible Travel, one of the world’s largest green travel companies to embrace environmental sustainability, said in an interview. “It’s seductive to the consumer who says, ‘It’s $4 and I’m carbon-neutral, so I can fly all I want.’ ”

    Offsets, he argues, are distracting people from making more significant behavioral changes, like flying less.

  11. “it was not helping to reduce global emissions. In fact, company officials said, it might even encourage some people to travel or consume more.”

    This is just a dumb argument. The point of carbon offsets is not to encourage you to reduce your consumption, but to subsidize reductions in emissions where it is cheapest. If I can reduce emissions somewhere else by 1 ton for 10$, then how is it more ethical for me to produce 1 ton less emissions rather than produce the ton and pay the 10$ and have the reduction happen somewhere else?

    The problem with offsets, if there is one, is that they are disingenuous – that the amount of carbon emissions reportedly being reduced by the fee is not actually being reduced. Lying, in other words. If offsets were real, and were as cheap as they say they are (the “margin” is important here – just because the first few tons are cheap to reduce does not mean that price is scalable up to the amount of reductions we need), we would not have a problem with increasing emissions – we could increase our personal emissions and still reduce overall emissions.

    For me the question is not “is it ethical to fly”, but “when is it ethical to fly” and “what kind of flying industry would there be in the world we want”. Assuming it is either ethical or unethical to fly assumes “flying” to be a static practice whose impacts are set. Flying, like every other industry, can change in size and character.

    I think the answer when it comes to flying is actually quite simple. We must remember there was a time when “seat sales” didn’t exist – when people did not fly to go on a vacation. However, people did fly to visit family. This is not just about personal decisions, it’s about the way the industry is marketed/markets itself.

    What we need is not only new personal decisions (less flying, more slow transport options, less “full time employment” when full time employment makes speed of very high importance), but also a reformation of consumer-capitalism – which always encourages excessive consumption (it’s called a healthy economy). We need ( and literally “we” – we’re the elites, we’re the first adopters) to recognize that the “we do it all for you” song of corporations is neither true nor false nor neutral. “We” need to realize, speak, tell people, that the desires that are satisfied when they go on a westjet vacation to porta viarta are produced by the stressful working conditions of late capitalism, they are not inherent. “We” need to repeat that the system ought serve the humans, and if the humans seem to be servicing the system, there is something wrong with it. Suzuki does this whenever he talks about the economy, and we do him and us a dis-service when we ignore his attempt to shift, to invert the logic of late capitalism with respect to “the economy”.

  12. The point of carbon offsets is not to encourage you to reduce your consumption, but to subsidize reductions in emissions where it is cheapest.

    From the perspective of those selling them, the point of carbon offsets is simply to make money. They will continue to do so as long as consumers are willing to accept the claim that they have value. That value, in turn, derives from reassuring people that they can make their travel ethically neutral by purchasing these offsets.

    As people concerned about climate change, we might be willing to tolerate the existence of offsets because we think they produce better outcomes than would otherwise arise. That being said, I don’t think that is the case for most offsets sold today. All those related to forestry and HFC-23 destruction are highly dubious, yet they encourage people to believe that their actions are sustainable.

    I think it is important for people to accept that when they undertake voluntary actions that are emissions intensive, they are knowingly causing harm to innocent and defenceless memebers of future generations: people who will have to live with the changes we cause, but who cannot harm us in any way.

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