Icarus falling

LAST UPDATED: 6 Jul, 2007 @ 15:20
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As Spain plants more trees to offset its greenhouse gas emissions, Bob Maddox believes we must do more if we are to save the planet

ICARUS, of course, was the lad in Greek mythology who got too big for his boots, or rather his wings, with disastrous consequences. Following their imprisonment in a tower by the nasty King Minos, Icarus’ father, Daedalus, hit upon a novel means of escape. He fashioned wings from feathers, one for himself and one for Icarus. His own were sewn together, while on Icarus’ smaller set, the feathers were held in place with wax. Before take-off, Daedalus issued a stern warning to Icarus:

Icarus, my son, I charge you to keep at a moderate height, for if you fly too high the heat of the sun will melt your wings.”


Predictably, Icarus let success go to his head, soaring ever higher, until his Dad’s predictions regarding heat and the tensile strength of wax came lamentably true. Icarus crashed into the sea and was lost.

Although none of the giants of today’s aviation industry have chosen to adopt the name Icarus Airlines, the parallels are clear. Like Icarus, the UK’s aviation industry has attained staggering heights. In 1954, four million of us adopted metal wings and arched out across the skies. By 2005, this had grown to a staggering 228 million passengers.

And, like Icarus, the new pushy sons of British aviation find themselves on the receiving end of dire warnings about their behaviour.

As Pacific islands vanish beneath the feet of their native peoples and ice floes tilt under the paws of Polar bears, so aviation has become the new villain of Global Warming as millions of us rush to convert cheap aviation fuel into holidays and pollution.

But just how much of this criticism is justified and how much simply hot air?

Tantamount to child abuse?

It is worth remembering all travel is environmentally hostile. This is an inescapable consequence of the laws of thermodynamics, which basically state there is no such thing as a free launch. From walking through to space travel, it all eats up energy and leaves behind waste – notably as carbon dioxide and heat. The question is really one of how necessary your journey is and how dirty your form of conveyance.

And here lies the essence of the problem with flying. In an age when we know without reasonable doubt the effects, can superfast intercontinental travel in an essentially dirty appliance – simply for the quick-fix of a holiday or a spot of retail therapy on Fifth Avenue – really be a morally defensible position?

Certainly environmentalist Georges Monbiot has no doubts whatsoever. He is implacably opposed to flying, calling upon the government to ground 90 per cent of all UK flights with immediate effect. Georges goes further, likening transatlantic flight to child abuse in its effects on human welfare (for the full story see www.monbiot.com/archives/1999/07/29/meltdown/)

Strong stuff and why not? If he is right, we are heading for a catastrophe as bright and clear as a vapour trail. As we, the world’s rich, exercise our democratic right to fly and have fun, the poor will die in increasingly spectacular numbers. As Monbiot puts it: “Some 92 million Bangladeshis could be driven out of their homes this century in order that we can still go shopping in New York.”
Predictably, Michael O’Leary, of Ryanair, disagrees. Dubbed the Irresponsible Face of Capitalism by Minister for Climate Change Ian Pearson, O’Leary points to the 20 per cent contribution to UK greenhouse emissions from private transport compared with 2 per cent from aviation. O’Leary’s message to his critics is clear: “Get out of your cars and walk!”

Offsetting the future

He has a point. However, his figure of 2 per cent is a little disingenuous. Once the enhanced effects of carbon dioxide (CO2) pollution at high altitudes along with other emissions are considered, the figure is closer to 6 per cent. With aviation in the UK currently growing at 12 per cent a year (faster than the booming economy of those nasty Chinese we love to point our environmental fingers of blame at), the future looks increasingly hot and dirty.

But lo! There appears hope on the horizon; for according to the apostles of Carbon Offsetting, all shall be well – as long as we can persuade others to change their behaviour. In principle, Carbon Offsetting is wonderfully simple; it means you are free to produce as much crap as you like, as long as you pay someone else to flush it away for you. Conscience clear!

In other words, if you can work out just how much CO2 your lifestyle generates in a year (www.carbonfootprint.com), you can pay to have that same amount removed from the atmosphere somewhere else – either by planting trees or by investing in a range of renewable energy and development projects ranging from building bio-gas digesters in India, efficient stoves for villagers in Honduras or, believe it or not, installing energy-efficient light bulbs in Kazakhstan.


Predictably, offsetting has become the new darling of aviation, offering the industry a golden opportunity to display its Green credentials. British Airways, Virgin Blue, Delta, Scandinavian Airlines – all are eager to persuade you to offset your conscience with the click of a mouse, just as long as you keep flying. Dr Andrew Sentance, British Airways’ head of environmental affairs says “Our own carbon emissions from aircraft are down by 8 per cent since 2000. However, some customers are keen to go beyond this and totally offset the emissions created by their flights.

“To help them, we are delighted to offer this facility.”

New dangers

Carbon offsetting is already a multi-million pound business. It even has the endorsement of Downing Street, with former PM Tony Blair shelling out £89.82 to offset the CO2 his family generated on a Christmas holiday flight to Florida. Incidentally, his pal George W could offset his use of Air Force One for around $200,000 a year. Not that I am suggesting the President of the USA should fly cattle-class of course. God forbid! He might wind up sitting next to me.

So, business as usual? Not, according to evidence presented before a Commons environmental audit recently, which expressed severe doubts about some of some of the companies involved in carbon offsetting schemes.

The fabulously named Jutta Kill of the Forests and European Union Resource Network or FERN (isn’t that wonderful?) thinks carbon offsetting does more harm than good by persuading consumers their behaviour is acceptable. Charlie Kronick of Greenpeace agrees, stating that the planting of trees “will not solve climate change and it is disingenuous to claim otherwise.”

And they have an unlikely ally in easyJet. The company has recently pulled out of the offsetting market on the grounds there are too many “snake-oil salesmen involved.” Despite this, at least 1.5 million Britons are estimated to have offset one or more flights during 2006.

So, where do we go from here?

Well, we can stop fencing with statistics and try a little clear-sightedness for a start. It does not cut much ice (although it may eventually melt a great deal) to hold up innocent hands and argue for unbridled expansion, as does Michael O’Leary. Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas – we are generating it in ever-increasing quantities and the effects of this are no longer in reasonable doubt. There really is an inconvenient truth out there. If we insist on flying, we must be prepared for the real price of the ticket.

And please forget that rather arrogant nonsense about “Saving the Planet,” which to my mind is nothing more than a dangerous distraction. It simply is not within our power to save it or destroy it – it is your grandchildren you need to worry about. The planet will look after itself, as always. The real issue is whether it will include us in any new incarnation.

But what about a quick techno fix? Surely the technological genie will bring forth shining “environmentally-friendly” aircraft to allow us to continue our addiction? As with carbon-offsetting, the industry is falling over itself to offer you reassuring statistics regarding the next generation of aircraft.

And perhaps they have a point. After all, haven’t we been here before? Ever since the deadly smogs of the 1950’s woke the UK government up to the need for a Clean Air Act by killing Londoners instead of just those oop north, we can indeed claim great success in reducing emissions of MPM (Micro-particulate matter or soot to you and I) into the atmosphere.

Unfortunately, according to Dr David Travis of the University of Wisconsin, this may yet turn out to be one of the worst things we could possibly have done.

For Global Warming, it seems, may not be the only offspring of our unfortunate love affair with fossil fuels. Global Dimming, its relatively shy sister has been waiting quietly in the wings; and says Travis, she’s just as big and every bit as dangerous.

Next issue, we look at what Global Dimming may mean to us and how, just when we thought we may be getting to grips with one problem, we could find ourselves with double trouble.

As for me I only flew once last year, which puts me on a par with George Monbiot. Nor do I have plans to fly again this side of eternity. Wish I could claim Green credentials from this but truth is…I am scared.

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