Is all flying bad?

Last updated: Jan 2008


Should we challenge the accepted environmental orthodoxy that all flying is bad asks Simon Birch?


With green issues becoming ever more complex there are a number of accepted environmental truths; namely that organic food, whales and rail travel are good things whilst conventional agriculture, Japanese whaling fleets and flying are all the work of the devil.

Well, brace yourselves because the bad news is that whilst whales and organic food are safely beyond reproach, the issue of flying is in reality far from being the black and white issue that most environmental groups would have you believe.

What’s at issue here is not the run-away growth of budget airlines and their short-haul trips to Paris and Prague when rail alternatives exist, or long-haul flights to America and beyond, but flights to the poorest countries in the world.



Flying to Africa

“I’m against the banning of flights to African countries such as Kenya,” says Fanuel Tolo. What will come as a shock to many greenies is that Mr Tolo doesn’t speak for any airline or industry, but instead works for the pan-African environmental organisation Climate Network Africa.

"The tourist industry is of huge importance to the Kenyan economy and is critical in the fight to alleviate poverty,” states Mr Tolo speaking from the Kenyan city of Kisumu. Tourism is the the single biggest industry and employer in Kenya, and the most important earner of vital foreign exchange for the Kenyan economy.

Mr Abraham Barno, agricultural attaché at the Kenyan High Commission in London, describes the likely impact on the Kenyan economy if tourists were to follow the calls from the likes of George Monbiot and Greenpeace and stopped flying to Kenya tomorrow:

“Such a scenario would have a hugely negative impact on the Kenyan economy. We need the foreign exchange that tourism brings us to buy medicines, food and other essential equipment from other countries to enable our economy to develop.”



A fair share of carbon emissions?

Mr Tolo believes that environmental groups in developed countries should focus their efforts on tackling climate change issues closer to home:

“By shifting the blame for climate change back to Africa by trying to ban flights, the developed world is addressing the problem from the wrong end. Instead the developed world should first develop renewable energy... to reduce their over reliance on fossil fuels.”

"These groups are being very selfish and aren’t concerned by our position in Africa. If they visited any part of sub-Saharan Africa they would find the majority of the population living on less than one US dollar a day.”

The crucial point to remember is that current climate crisis is not of Africa’s making. As a whole Africa is responsible for less than 3% of global greenhouse gases with Kenyans, on a per-capita basis, producing just 0.3 tonnes of greenhouse gases every year compared with a whopping 10 tonnes for Brits.

Given this, countries such as Kenya have every right to increase their greenhouse gas emissions as they lift themselves out of poverty, something that’s enshrined within the Kyoto Protocol.

“Of course we will suffer from the effects of climate change but we believe strongly that in sub-Saharan Africa, and other developing countries, poverty alleviation has to be the first priority,” says Mr Tolo.



Campaigners respond

So what’s the response of environmental groups to this point?

“We accept that poverty alleviation in countries such as Kenya is very important and that few African voices have been heard in aviation campaigning to date,” admits Robbie Gillet from the anti-aviation campaign group Plane Stupid.

“This is an issue that the wider environmental movement is now waking up to. If you are going to fly to countries such as Kenya though, you need to offset this, not with a carbon offset company, but with some climate change political campaigning to bring about the changes needed to make rail travel cheaper in the UK and flying more expensive.”

Robbie Gillet also suggests that that countries such as Kenya should move away from a dependency on aviation-reliant tourism. Responding to this, Abraham Barno asks:

“How will we replace the jobs in our tourism industry and what will we diversify into? Environmental groups never tell us this. 

"What’s the point of discussing climate change when people in Africa are still going without food, are economically inactive and are subject to disease?” adds Mr Barno.“In terms of human development these are far worse than any impact from climate change.”


From Ethical Consumer, Issue 110, January/February 2008