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Sustainable transport: to fly, or not to fly?



One side argues that the green movement can be enriched by air travel; the other says environmentalists must stay grounded. But who’s right?

This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Transport 2014.

Innovations that will reduce passenger planes’ considerable environmental impact may be possible, but they are not around the corner. In 2001, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that alternatives to kerosene-based fuel for commercial jets would not be viable “for the next several decades”.

The UK Department for Transport, which would perhaps be more inclined to be optimistic given the government’s support for the expansion of aviation, also admits that no quick fix is “currently visible”. Aviation, it seems, will be the last transport sector to change.

This is unfortunate, because to fly is also to inflict the gravest damage upon the climate that a human being possibly can. In a large car carrying four passengers, for example, a return journey from London to Edinburgh of around 720 miles emits 74.4kg of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre.

A commercial plane making the same journey would emit 202.6kg per passenger kilometre, and it must be considered that an international flight can easily journey as far in a day as an average car will in a year.

But this is not all. Jets release gases and particles that have an overall warming effect roughly 2.7 times as powerful as carbon dioxide alone. The altitude at which these emissions are released exacerbates the impact.

Carbon offsetting – a mechanism through which emissions are compensated by small investments in things like renewable energy – has been hailed by some as a solution. However, the system has been criticised. Campaign group Friends of the Earth brands offsetting “a dangerous distraction”. – a leading tour operator for sustainable holidays – ditched offsetting in 2009, arguing it was ineffective.

The Department of Transport estimates that demand for flights will increase by 1% annually until 2050. The European commission says that by 2020, global international aviation emissions will increase by around 70% from 2005 levels, even accounting for the anticipated improvements in energy efficiency. The International Civil Aviation Organisation predicts that by 2050 they could grow by 300-700%. This is not sustainable.

There clearly are other ways to get around, but none make the far corners of the world so quickly and easily accessible than aviation. The environmentally conscious traveller therefore has a difficult choice. Can flying be justified? 

Flying can be justified 

“I fly because it’s the only way in which I can do the work that I do”, says Brendan May, chairman of the Robertsbridge Group sustainability consultancy.

“I think that applies to people like me who advise companies and I think it applies to a huge number of NGOs. There is no way that we can transform the business practices and politics of places outside the UK without spending time with the people we’re trying to help change behaviour.”

May is currently working to protect the rainforests of Indonesia; something he says cannot be done without boarding a plane: “If the work that I’m doing is successful then that would definitely compensate for the six or so flights that I have to take to Indonesia.

Similarly, the social benefits of what people like the fair trade movement and the Oxfams of the world do, far outweigh the negative footprint caused by their journeys. I think you could apply that argument to much of the serious environmental work that goes on around the world.”

In fact, May argues that more environmentalists should fly. “They should fly to influence, they should fly to engage, and they should fly to important international gatherings where decisions are made. Otherwise they are just undermining their own access and influence”, he says.

He qualifies this, saying that campaigners “who just fly the conference circuit” should stay at home, and that flying should be avoided when more sustainable options are available.

“I think that anyone that flies from London to Brussels or Paris is an idiot. There really is no need. But if it’s going to cut out time that you could then spend doing useful things then you don’t want to be on a train for 10 or 12 hours. I think you have to take each journey individually.” 

He also makes a distinction between business and leisure travel. One of the most popular retorts of the pro-flight lobby is the economic benefits that air travel brings.

Speaking to Blue & Green Tomorrow in 2012, Paul Steele, executive director of the Air Traffic Action Group, said, “People often forget that if you’re flying on vacation to Thailand or from Bangkok back to London, your plane is not just about passengers who’ve been on holiday. You’ve got business people, government people, but also, importantly, the belly of that plane is full of goods. The aviation industry transports 35% of the value of the world’s goods.”

ATAG claims that if aviation were a country, it would have the 19th highest gross domestic product (GDP) in the world, generating $539 billion (£330 billion) per year. Despite this, May argues that business air travel can and should be reduced, not just for environmental reasons, but also cost efficiency ones.

The increased use of ICT and introduction of software such as Skype mean that many international meetings can be made without anyone leaving an office. He is, however, wary of conveying a similar message to holidaymakers.

“I don’t believe that the environmental movement is going to succeed by telling normal working family people that they cannot go on holiday with their kids by plane. I think that kind of narrative is absolutely lethal to the environmental movement,” he says. 

“The reality is that aviation is going to grow exponentially in places like the Middle East, Africa and south-east Asia, and are we really going to say to all these emerging middle class people in Indonesia, in China, in Africa, ‘No, you cannot get on a plane’?

What we have to do is put the aviation sector on a more sustainable footing, which means looking at aircraft design, looking at routes and fuel and the way in which people travel, but saying that we shouldn’t fly anywhere is just a route to nowhere.”  

As previously mentioned, carbon offsetting had been put forward as one way of putting the aviation industry on such a footing, and May argues that we should not only listen to its recent bad press: “We have to defend good offsets which brings a whole range of benefits, but not be blind to the fact that we can’t just kick our dog and give the RSPCA some money and all will be well.” 

He concludes, “I think aviation has a lot to answer for and the aviation lobby has handled the climate change debate in a quite clumsy and laggard-type way, but I think it is the wrong industry to pick. There are bigger fish to fry out there where there is a more realistic chance of success.” 

Flying cannot be justified

In the opposing corner is Prof Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist and deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. He argues that environmentalists should lead by example by staying grounded.

Anderson decided that he could no longer justify flying eight years ago, and instead advocates slower, less damaging modes of transport. “At a system level, trains have an order of magnitude lower emissions than the metal bird alternative – the saving is that significant”, he wrote in a recent blog entitled Hypocrites in the air.

“Attending an ‘essential’ conference to save the world from climate change in Venice, Cancun or some other holiday resort, is perfectly doable by plane. However, the rising emission trends don’t seem to have registered the sterling work we have achieved at such events. Perhaps if we flew to more of them, emissions would really start to come down – we may even spot some flying pigs en route.”

In another article, written this time with Dan Calverly and Maria Sharmina, also of the Tyndall Centre, Anderson argued that the attitudes of airborne environmentalists borders on the colonial.

“This form of patriarchal egotism perpetuates the systemic nature of many issues. Whilst alleviating narrowly bounded but high profile concerns, from the extinction of particular species through to localised deforestation, it neglects more challenging and high-level drivers such as climate change”, they say.

“Certainly there may be niche benefits in western experts applying ‘sticking-plasters’ to localised problems, but it is an inappropriate model for addressing the pervasiveness of climate change, let alone the more interconnected nature of sustainability.”

Brendan May counters that most prominent environmentalists still take to the air, but Anderson is not alone in taking such an absolutist standpoint. The environmental journalist George Monbiot says that to board a plane is to be complicit in causing environmental destruction, succinctly saying, “If you fly, you destroy other people’s lives.

One recent convert to this way of thinking is the meteorologist Eric Holthaus. In an article written for the Atlantic, Holthaus described how after reading the IPCC’s latest review of climate change science, he emotionally realised “any hope for a healthy planet seemed to be dwindling, a death warrant written in stark, black-and-white data”.

He and his wife decided they must reduce their own carbon footprints, and though Holthaus flew around 75,000 miles last year – mostly to Africa and the Caribbean, where he works to reduce the impact of climate change – he knew he could never fly again.

“For a lot of us frequent fliers, the environmental harm is dramatic and adds up fast”, he wrote in the article.

“A one-way flight from New York to San Francisco (2.23 tonnes of CO2) has nearly the same impact as driving a Hummer the same distance (2.81 tonnes). By vowing not to fly, I went from having more than double the carbon footprint as the average American to about 30% less than average.”

Holthaus noted that he still has to travel a lot, using trains or the car he shares with his wife when videoconferencing won’t do. “But by removing my single biggest impact on the climate in one swoop, I can rest a bit easier knowing I’ve begun to heed the IPCC’s call to action. Individual gestures, repeated by millions of people, could make a huge difference.”

The verdict 

To an extent, the choice seems to be between what is politically possible and realistic, and what science demands. If aviation is permitted to expand as predicted, we are relying on there being unforeseen progress in alternative fuels or emission reduction. This would be a big gamble.

But then, for governments to restrict flights would require a significant shift in political will and an unprecedented international display of public opinion. Never before would a campaign have lobbied for a reduction of public freedoms on such a scale.

Beyond that, the decision is an ethical one. When you next step on a plane, do you believe it will be worth it? As with so many of the questions that the environmentally aware must ask themselves, there is no easy answer.

Further reading:

Is it contradictory to fly somewhere for a ‘sustainable’ holiday?

The return of the airship: under the bonnet of the world’s longest aircraft

Airlines call for unified measure to cut carbon emissions

Avoid plane strain

The Guide to Sustainable Transport 2014


5 Eco-friendly Appliance Maintenance Tips




Eco-friendly Appliance
Shutterstock Photos - By Punyhong |

Modern day society is becoming ever more conscious about the effects of human consumption on the environment & the planet.

As a collective, more people are considering taking action to positively counteract their environmental footprint. This is accomplished by cutting down on water consumption, recycling and switching from plastic to more sustainable materials. Although most people forget about the additional things that can be done at home to improve your individual eco footprint.

Appliances, for example, can be overlooked when it comes to helping the environment, despite the fact they are items which are found in every household, and if they are not maintained effectively they can be detrimental to the environment. The longer an appliance is used, the less of an impact it has on the environment, so it is essential for you to keep them well maintained.

If you’re considering becoming more eco-conscious, here are 5 handy appliance maintenance tips to help you.

Don’t Forget to Disconnect From Power First

General maintenance of all your appliances start with disconnecting them from power; microwaves, washing machines and ovens all use residual energy when plugged in, so it’s essential to unplug them.

Disconnecting the plugs can help keep them in their best condition, as it ensures no electrical current is running through them whilst they are supposed to be out of use. Additionally, this can help you save on energy bills. By doing this you are minimising your energy footprint.

Here we break down 4 tips to keep the most popular household appliances maintained.

Eco-Friendly Oven Maintenance

Ovens generally require very little maintenance, although it is essential to stay on top of cleaning.

A simple task to make sure you don’t have any issues in the future is to check the oven door has a tight seal. To do this ensure the oven is cold, open the oven door and use your hands to locate the rubber seal. You can now feel for any tears or breaks. If any have occurred simply replace the seal. More oven tips can be read here.

Eco-Friendly Refrigerator Maintenance

When keeping a fridge in good condition, don’t forget about exterior maintenance. Refrigerator coils, although an external fixture, can cause damage when overlooked.

Refrigerator coils can be found either at the front or rear of a fridge (check you user manual if you are unsure of its location). These tend to accumulate various sources of dust and dirt over a substantial time-period, which clog refrigerator coils, causing the refrigerator to have to work twice as hard to stay cool. An easy tip to solve this is to periodically use a vacuum to get rid of any loose dirt.

Eco-Friendly Washing Machine Maintenance

Most people tend to remember the basics tasks for maintaining a washing machine, such as not to overload the machine, not to slam the door and to ensure the washing machine is on a solid and level platform.

In addition, it is necessary to routinely do a maintenance wash for your washing machine. This means running an empty wash on the highest temperature setting and letting it complete a full wash to erase any build up and residue. You should repeat this task at least once a month.

Try to schedule this task around your bulk wash load times to save on water consumption.

This will help keep your washing machine in peak working condition.

Eco-Friendly Dishwasher Maintenance Tips

Dishwasher maintenance can be simple if implemented after every wash cycle.

To keep your best dishwasher hygiene standards, scrape away excess food whilst making sure to keep the filter at the bottom of the cavity empty between cycles. This simple task can be highly effective at preventing food build up from occurring in your dishwasher.

If you need additional tips or tasks you, can reference your manufacturer’s guidebook to check for a full breakdown. You can also head to Service Force’s extensive database of repair and maintenance manuals – including extensive troubleshooting guides for all of the critical appliance maintenance procedures.

In conclusion, you can save both money and energy by keeping your appliances in peak condition. The steps outlined in this guide will help us all preserve the environment and reduce industrial waste from discarded appliances.

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Two Ancient Japanese Philosophies Are the Future of Eco-Living



Shutterstock Photos - By Syda Productions |

Our obsession with all things new has blighted the planet. We have a waste crisis, particularly when it comes to plastic. US scientists have calculated the total amount of plastic ever made – 8.3 billion tons! Unfortunately, only 9% of this is estimated to have been recycled. And current global trends point to there being 12 billion tons of plastic waste by 2050.

However, two ancient Japanese philosophies are providing an antidote to the excesses of modern life. By emphasizing the elimination of waste and the acceptance of the old and imperfect, the concepts of Mottainai and Wabi-Sabi have positively influenced Japanese life for centuries.

They are now making their way into the consciousness of the Western mainstream, with an increasing influence in the UK and US. By encouraging us to be frugal with our possessions, (i.e. using natural materials for interior design) these concepts can be the future of eco-living.

What is Wabi-Sabi and Mottainai??

Wabi-Sabi emphasizes an acceptance of transience and imperfection. Although Wabi had the original meaning of sad and lonely, it has come to describe those that are simple, unmaterialistic and at one with nature. The term Sabi is defined as the “the bloom of time”, and has evolved into a new meaning: taking pleasure and seeing beauty in things that are old and faded. 

Any flaws in objects, like cracks or marks, are cherished because they illustrate the passage of time. Wear and tear is seen as a representation of their loving use. This makes it intrinsically linked to Wabi, due to its emphasis on simplicity and rejection of materialism.

In the West, Wabi-Sabi has infiltrated many elements of daily life, from cuisine to interior design. Specialist Japanese homeware companies, like Sansho, source handmade products that embody the Wabi-Sabi philosophy. Their products, largely made from natural materials, are handcrafted by traditional Japanese artisans – meaning no two pieces are the same and no two pieces are “perfect” in size or shape.


Mottainai is a term expressing a feeling of regret concerning waste, translating roughly in English to either “what a waste!” or “Don’t waste!”. The philosophy emphasizes the intrinsic value of a resource or object, and is linked to hinto animism, the notion that all objects have a spirit, or ‘kami’. The idea that we are part of nature is a key part of Japanese psychology.

Mottainai also has origins in Buddhist philosophy. The Buddhist monastic tradition emphasizes a life of frugality, to allow us to concentrate on attaining enlightenment. It is from this move towards frugality that a link to Mottainai as a concept of waste can be made.

How have Wabi-Sabi and Mottainai promoted eco living?

Wabi-Sabi is still a prominent feature of Japanese life today, and has remained instrumental in the way people design their homes. The ideas of imperfection and frugality are hugely influential.

For example, instead of buying a brand-new kitchen table, many Japanese people instead retain a table that has been passed through the generations. Although its long use can be seen by various marks and scratches, Wabi-Sabi has taught people that they should value it because of its imperfect nature. Those scratches and marks are a story and signify the passage of time. This is a far cry from what we typically associate with the Western World.

Like Wabi Sabi, Mottainai is manifested throughout Japanese life, creating a great respect for Japanese resources. This has had a major impact on home design. For example, the Japanese prefer natural materials in their homes, such as using soil and dried grass as thermal insulation.

Their influence in the UK

The UK appears to be increasingly influenced by thes two concepts. Some new reports indicate that Wabi Sabi has been labelled as ‘the trend of 2018’. For example, Japanese ofuro baths inspired the project that won the New London Architecture’s 2017 Don’t Move, Improve award. Ofuro baths are smaller than typical baths, use less water, and are usually made out of natural materials, like hinoki wood.

Many other UK properties have also been influenced by these philosophies, such as natural Kebony wood being applied to the external cladding of a Victorian property in Hampstead; or a house in Lancaster Gate using rice paper partitions as sub-dividers. These examples embody the spirit of both philosophies. They are representative of Mottainai because of their use of natural resources to discourage waste. And they’re reflective of Wabi-Sabi because they accept imperfect materials that have not been engineered or modified.

In a world that is plagued by mass over-consumption and an incessant need for novelty, the ancient concepts of Mottainai and Wabi-Sabi provide a blueprint for living a more sustainable life. They help us to reduce consumption and put less of a strain on the planet. This refreshing mindset can help us transform the way we go about our day to day lives.

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