Jetting off to the sun? The adverts are selling you a ticket to climate disaster

Airlines have missed 98% of their previous environmental targets yet they keep urging more people to fly. Andrew Simms, SGR, discusses the industry's contradictions and how these can be tackled.

Responsible Science blog, 16 August 2023

Even with lethal wildfires licking around southern Europe’s holiday hotspots, airlines such as Ryanair still flew people towards the flames. Aviation, dubbed “the fastest way to fry the planet’ by environmental campaigners, due to its high carbon emissions, is back as our default means of getting away. But our chosen means of transport, flying, incrementally wrecks the climates, prospects and lives of the places being flown to. This is no tragic, unforeseen irony, but a deliberate, heavily promoted act of self-destruction.

At precisely the moment when everything should bend to make less climate-damaging choices easier and more attractive, exactly the opposite is happening. Why?

Online platforms, magazines and papers are covered in ads for flight-based holidays, huge adverts for airlines decorate railway stations (why do the railways even allow adverts by their competitors?), and turn on the TV to watch wall-to-wall football, tennis, golf, rugby, cricket or, sadly, even cycling, and you will see airline sponsorship from the likes of Emirates, Etihad or BA emblazoned everywhere.

If we are looking for a reason why system and behaviour change to prevent climate breakdown isn’t happening fast enough or, in some places, at all, look no further than the profoundly mixed messages people get in their daily lives.

For those who are listening, in one ear the science is telling us calmly to change now, and fast. But in the other, advertising tells us, relentlessly and enthusiastically, to carry on as we are, living heavily polluting lifestyles and buying high-carbon products.

After the pandemic, when people quickly learned to live without flying and found other places to visit using other forms of transport, heavily advertised leisure flights are back.

Pre-pandemic, UK aviation carbon emissions that contribute to the heatwaves and extreme weather of a heating planet were about 40m tonnes a year, but the non-carbon climate impacts of flying, including nitrogen oxides and water vapour, at the very least double its damage. Globally, that means a basic figure of 2% of carbon emissions could have three times the impact, equivalent to more than the emissions of Russia.

After dropping sharply with the industry grounded, emissions “almost doubled in 2022 compared with 2021”, according to the UK government climate adviser, the Climate Change Committee (CCC). And, if the industry (backed by the government) gets its way, that is not going to stop.

The government’s Orwellian-sounding “jet zero” strategy does nothing to actually reduce aviation demand; on the contrary, it projects that it will increase by 70% by 2050 compared with 2018 levels. The industry itself is dreaming of a tripling of air traffic between 2023 and 2042.

Of the government’s aviation approach to meeting its own climate targets, the CCC judges (in the reserved language of officialdom) that it “has considerable delivery risks”. There are reasons for this. One is that leading independent scientists, such as those at the Royal Society, conclude that no credible alternative to fossil fuels exists for aviation. Another is that the “fly net zero” plan pushed by aviation’s global body, Iata, entirely ignores at least half of the industry’s climate impact by only looking at carbon emissions.

So much for industry wishful thinking about the future – any assessment of its environmental commitment can readily be informed by the past. It’s not hopeful. Airlines have missed 98% of their previous environmental targets.

Altogether this could be why the CCC recommends that in the UK there “should be no net airport expansion”, and that “a coherent public engagement strategy on climate action is long overdue” to “empower and inform households and communities to make low-carbon choices” and reduce air and car travel. This is hardly compatible with being constantly surrounded by adverts promoting flying as if there is no tomorrow.

Yet, against the vividly apocalyptic backdrop of a Europe in which the heat map has gone from red to the colour of burned forests and homes, and global heating records were probably broken three times in the first week of July, there are some positive signs of the possibilities for change, and easy, immediate options to lessen the problem.

First, we could stop promoting our own self-destruction by ending adverts for flying in the same way that adverts for health-wrecking cigarettes were banned. That wouldn’t prevent people from flying, but it would stop the additional number of flights that result from the industry’s excessive self-promotion. Research indicates that additional flights being taken due to advertising could result in up to 34m tonnes of carbon dioxide in a year. Taking away the uninvited pressure and prompts to fly would be in line with scientific advice, and an easy way to ease overdue behaviour change.

The other piece of relatively good news is that lockdown taught us it is possible to live without flying. It’s an insight that has taken root in the business community where awareness of the possible savings on time, money and carbon means flying for business remains below pre-pandemic levels and may continue that way.

Of course, other things need to happen. The aviation industry needs to be honest about its prospects, understand its vulnerability (perfectly demonstrated by the pandemic) and respect its workforces by having genuine plans for a safe economic landing in a world with necessarily less flying. In a perfectly symbolic example during the pandemic, Swiss airways and railways explored retraining pilots as train drivers. Aviation also needs to lose its huge subsidies – worth £242m in free pollution permits alone in the UK in 2021 – that make flying artificially cheap. Railways need investment, proper integration and cheaper ticketing to recognise their environmental value and local economic benefits.

The CCC notes that consumers say they “increasingly consider the impact of flying on the environment when considering travelling by air”, and that “substantial changes to behaviours are possible”. With the government studiously ignoring its own climate advisers, others are compelled to take up the challenge of overdue public engagement. That’s why the Ministry for the Climate Emergency, an invention of the Badvertising group, has created the online Planes on the Brain information campaign to call for an end to aviation advertising. Nobody wants to holiday in a climate breakdown, so maybe we should stop adverts that help to fuel it.

Andrew Simms is assistant director of Scientists for Global Responsibility, co-director of the New Weather Institute, coordinator of the Badvertising campaign and the Rapid Transition Alliance, and a research associate at the University of Sussex.

This article was first published on The Guardian website at:

[image credit: Holger Detjea via Pixabay]

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