Does Greenpeace’s sanctioning of short-haul flights mirror wider hypocrisy amongst the climate change community?

June 2014. The following article is in response to a report in the Guardian in which the head of Greenpeace UK defends the need for one of its top executives to make regular flights between his home and work (Amsterdam and Luxembourg).


The recent suite of reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underline the rapidly dwindling global carbon budget into which we have to squeeze twenty first century carbon emissions. This transition from society’s ill-informed focus on 2050 (or some other conveniently far off date) to scientifically credible carbon budgets, reframes the mitigation challenge in terms of deep reductions in emissions delivered over the coming decade. It is within this context of urgency and in the pivotal run up to the climate negotiations in Paris 2015, that Greenpeace’s sanctioning of regular short-haul flights, needs to be considered.

Defending their international programme director’s regular Luxembourg to Amsterdam flights on the basis of “needs of his family”, resonates with my experience as an academic working within the climate change community. Amongst academics, NGOs, green-business gurus and climate change policy makers, there is little collective sense of either the urgency of change needed or of our being complicit in the grim situation we now face.

Since the first IPCC report in 1990, even the rate of emissions growth has risen – to a point where emissions today, a quarter of a century later, are some 60% higher. If such emission trends continue, then we’re heading for enormous changes for many families even in the short term. These families may not be our own – much more likely they’ll be those who have not contributed to the problem, have little income and live in areas geographically more vulnerable to climate impacts. We choose to fly to be with our family as quickly as possible – so as not to be away for more than a few days. But the repercussions (ok, not on a 1-to-1 basis perhaps) are for another family in another place to lose their home, suffer food and water shortages, social and community pressures and wider conflicts – to put at risk the very fabric of their families and communities.

Moreover, using fast and high carbon transport to reduce the time we spend away from our families also has longer-term repercussions for our own children. Are we rushing back for the sake of our families or for our own individual engagement with our families? This is a subtle but important distinction. Are we concerned about our families only whilst we’re around to enjoy and benefit from them, or are we more altruistically concerned regardless of our own immediate returns? When we’re dead and buried our children will likely still be here dealing with the legacy of our inaction today; do we discount their futures at such a rate as to always favour those family activities that we can join in with?

Flying is emblematic of a modern and thriving society. Regardless of evidence the aviation industry is touted as central to future prosperity – a view deeply embedded in the culture and internationalisation agenda of both universities and many NGOs. But such a framing of contemporary society is categorically at odds with the carbon budgets accompanying the global community’s pledge to hold the rise in temperature below 2°C – i.e. to avoid “dangerous climate change”. Aviation, as with virtually every sector, makes all the right noises about becoming more efficient and reducing carbon intensity. But this misunderstands the science and challenge of climate change. All that really matters are absolute emissions – not how efficient we are. This ultimately is the rub – we have left it far too late for technology alone to deliver the necessary rates of mitigation.

Those of us intimately engaged on climate change know this. Whether academics, NGOs, business leaders, policy makers or journalists, we cannot hide behind a lack of knowledge of our emissions or a poor understanding of the impacts of climate change. Despite this, the frequency of our flying to ‘essential’ meetings, conferences etc., mirrors the rapid rise in global emissions – all salved with a repeated suite of trite excuses. Surely if humankind is to respond to the unprecedented challenges posed by soaring emissions, we, as a community, should be a catalyst for change – behaving as if we believe in our own research, campaign objectives etc. – rather than simply acting as a bellwether of society’s complacency.


The above response borrows from previous articles, particularly Hypocrites in the air and Evangelising from 32 thousand feet.

A further exchange, unhelpfully titled “Is flying still beyond the pale”, was published in the New Internationalist.

With a specific focus on the UK see:
– Aviation & shipping privileged again?  – published as a Tyndall Centre Briefing Note 47
– A one-way ticket to high carbon lock-in please – published in Carbon Management

In addition, the following papers address issues on aviation at the EU, UK and regional levels (these were written several years ago, but the arguments remain broadly valid today – 2014):
– Aviation in turbulent times
– Air transport, climate change and tourism
– Policy clash: Can aviation growth be reconciled with the UK 60% carbon-reduction target?
– Apportioning aviation CO2 emissions to regional administrations

For discussion on aviation in relation to 2°C carbon budgets, see 2013 book chapter: Carbon budgets for aviation or gamble with our future

For similar arguments made in relation to the shipping industry (another sector exempt from the Kyoto protocol and often neglected in national carbon inventories) see: Executing a Scharnow turn: reconciling shipping emissions with international commitments on climate change