Warning: Your Flight is Bad For the Planet's Health

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:06 PM EDT


(Editor's note: Adds reaction from British Airways and Green Party)

(CNSNews.com) - British airlines reacted with derision Thursday to a left-leaning think tank's recommendation that the U.K. government introduce tobacco-style "health warnings" on air travel advertising and at airports -- to draw attention to aviation's alleged impact on the earth's climate in a bid to tackle travelers' "addiction to flying."

"What have those guys been smoking?" a spokeswoman for the no-frills carrier Ryanair said from Ireland, but declined to offer a formal reaction to the recommendation by the London-based Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

The IPPR, an influential think tank with links to the Labor Party, recommended in a report released ahead of the busy Easter getaway period that "large and visible warnings" be posted telling travelers, "Flying Causes Climate Change."

"The report says it would work in a similar way to health warnings on cigarette packs which help to encourage people to give up smoking," the organization said in a statement Thursday.

The IPPR also suggested the warnings include estimates of the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) - a "greenhouse gas" blamed for global warming - emitted during the relevant flight, for example: "The average individual in the U.K. emits 4,400 kilograms of CO2 per year. A return flight from London to Perth, Australia, on average emits 4,500 kilograms of CO2 per person."

For domestic and short-haul flights, the think tank said, the warning should carry a comparison of emissions if the same journey was taken by train or bus: "For example: A return flight from London to Newcastle [in northern England] on average emits 120 kilograms of CO2 per person while the same journey by train emits 39 kilograms of CO2 per person."

"The evidence that aviation damages the atmosphere is just as clear as the evidence that smoking kills," argued Simon Retallack, the IPPR's "head of climate change."

"We know that smokers notice health warnings on cigarettes, and we have to tackle our addiction to flying in the same way. But if we are to change people's behavior, warnings must be accompanied by offering people alternatives to short-haul flights and by steps to make the cost of flying better reflect its impact on the environment."

A spokesman for another low-cost British airline, easyJet, reacted strongly to the institute's proposals.

"If the IPPR is actually keen to do something about global warming rather it should direct its attention towards those industries where it can seriously make a difference," he said in an emailed response to queries Thursday.

He noted that a high-profile report last year by Britain's chief economist had "showed that aviation accounts for only 1.6 percent of global greenhouse gases - which, put simply, means that grounding every aircraft in the world would have no affect (sic) whatsoever on climate change."

The spokesman added that aviation has become "the red herring of global climate change."

"Comparing aviation to cigarettes is banal and devalues the debate on the environment," he continued. The easyJet airline "emits 95.7 grams of CO2 per seat kilometer - substantially less than the CO2 emissions of [the hybrid] Toyota Pries. This should be the subject of the debate - not gimmicks."

The London-based airline expects to carry 700,000 passengers across its European network over the Easter weekend.

James Avery, founder of Flightmapping - an online information source about flights from the U.K. - said the IPPR risked losing credibility if it was serious about promoting the air travel "health warnings."

Avery said his site had actually been considering doing a "health warning on planes" story as an April Fool's joke "but thought the idea was too stupid to be remotely believable."

"We were all in hysterics when we heard about the IPPR's plans," Avery added.

"I have always argued that aviation should cover its full environmental costs," he wrote.

"But over the last few months, the lunatics have really taken over the asylum in a rush to come out with increasingly ridiculous policies, which now seem to have more to do with curtailing people's legitimate desires to have fun and see friends and family, than they do with providing any meaningful environmental benefit," Avery said.

"The idea that there should be any kind of equivalence drawn between the highly destructive habit of smoking, and the extremely enjoyable and immensely beneficial activity of taking a holiday, is frankly ridiculous," Avery added.

"It is absurd to argue that flying is single-handedly responsible for climate change," British Airways' press office in London said in a statement emailed to Cybercast News Service.

"Aviation worldwide contributes 1.6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. If you banned all flights in and out of the U.K., you would reduce global CO2 emissions by 0.1 percent. Denying people their holidays would not solve climate change.

"This is a global problem and we must act as a global community to reduce our climate impact through international mechanisms," the statement said. "That is why British Airways has long campaigned for aviation to be included in carbon trading schemes - and we look forward to the start of the E.U. scheme, which will reduce emissions."

Positive reaction came from the U.K. Green Party, which said it had been calling for similar measures for the past year.

"Aviation is the fastest growing source of dangerous carbon emissions but how many people are really aware of the impact their individual flights will have?," the party's Sian Berry said in a statement sent to Cybercast News Service.

"Health warnings on airline advertising would go a long way to curbing the dangerous and increasing impacts of flying," she said. "It's just common sense.

"Runaway climate change will kill more people than those that die from smoking," Berry added. "Isn't it time we did something about it?"

Apart from the "health warnings," the IPPR also wants:
-- "carbon-offsetting" charges to be included in airfares, with passengers who are unwilling to contribute being required actively to opt out, rather than those wanting to pay being required to opt-in;
-- increases in aviation tax, accompanied by improvements to rail transport;
-- all new car advertising and showroom displays to be required to include CO2 emission labels; and
-- car ads to include "bold and visible warnings about the contribution of driving to climate change."

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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