Sparks fly over ethics of air travel
Is this trip necessary? A jet lands in Montreal. Proponents of air travel tout its importance to the global economy. Detractors say per-passenger emissions carry too high a cost.
Travelers troubled by rising airfares, canceled flights, and overcrowded tarmacs are hearing yet another reason to reconsider air travel.Skip to next paragraph
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Some say it's unethical to fly.
Earlier this month, neighborhood and environmental activists staged events across Britain to dramatize concerns about commercial aviation. Donning masks of Prime Minister Gordon Brown and waving cardboard airplanes, they called on government to keep track of carbon emissions from planes and raise fees to discourage frequent flying.
Behind this action lurks an ethics-based argument that's trying to shame routine fliers in developed nations into flying less. The nub: The planet should not have to suffer the consequences of a fast-growing (if now troubled) air-travel industry. Hence, the argument goes, an ethical consumer should think twice before buying plane tickets.
"If we're going to reduce aviation's contribution to climate change, then the onus is on people in the rich world to look at their flying habits," says John Stewart, chair of AirportWatch, a Britain-based coalition to curtail flying and airport expansion. That's because most fliers don't live in developing nations, he says.
Estimates for significant growth in air travel are fueling today's ethics debates. The World Tourism Organization projects the number of international leisure travelers to nearly double from 842 million in 2006 to 1.6 billion in 2020. Most of those travelers are expected to go by air.
Science hasn't put the ethical issue to rest. Airplane emissions currently account for about 3 percent of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide, according to Daniel Sperling, director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Davis. He says taking a train across the United States generates about 20 percent fewer emissions than an average cross-country flight. But doing the trip solo in a car would produce about 66 percent more carbon per passenger mile than an average flight.
That flying has a detrimental effect on the environment is widely accepted. The ethical debate hinges instead on such questions as: How much damage is acceptable? When is a flight justified? And when do the benefits of cross-cultural interaction, made possible by flying, outweigh the costs borne by the environment and those who live near runways?
Moral authorities of varied stripes have weighed in. In 2006, London's Anglican Bishop John Chartres said flying abroad to vacation is a "symptom of sin" because it ignores "an overriding imperative to walk more lightly upon the earth." Environmentalists have also framed flying as a moral issue since it allegedly causes harm in pursuit of unnecessary ends. "You can be an environmental saint – drive a hybrid car, recycle, conserve your water – and if you take one air flight, it actually blows your carbon budget right out of the water," says Elle Morrell, director of a green-lifestyle program at the Australian Conservation Foundation. One round-trip flight from Sydney to New York City, she says, generates as much in carbon-dioxide emissions per passenger as an average Australian would generate in an entire flightless year.
"We ask people to take this seriously," Ms. Morrell says, "and avoid air travel where they possibly can."