On flights, fridges and fishes.

My initial goal when writing this blog was two fold. It was to investigate:

  • Sustainable transport through attempting to not fly or minimize flying distance.
  • Sustainable food through supporting local producers of food and minimizing the food miles of consumer produce.

As an element of coursework for my masters, I should probably try to wrap these up in the coming weeks. (I do however hope to continue this blog in some form post masters too!)

On sustainable transport, I haven’t yet taken my journey but it looks to be a good choice for value adding onto an otherwise unjustifiably long and expensive journey. I’ll be visiting three friends on the way in three different countries. “the journey is the destination.” I may find this to be true in otherways too if I miss any part of the journey and get stranded somewhere other than Norway for Christmas.

Since my challenge started and up to the challenge end point of the beginning of next year I have not taken a plane or made plans to fly. That’s successful in some sense. However it’s also costing me a significant sum (£210) and so I’ve booked a flight home from Norway in early January. So it’s a let down?

With Ryanair and with a piece of checked in luggage this will be just over £30, not including the extra journeys to and from the airport on each end which will bring the cost up to about £50 or £60. So about a quarter of my journey cost from the uk. This leaves me with a fair bit of scope for offsetting my emissions without coming close to breaking the £210 limit. I’ll be looking into more precise options for carbon offsetting in my next blog post (which is for theoretically taking back the carbon impact of your flying for a small fee towards planting trees or installing renewable power in a remote part of the world).

I thought that to start with, my class (including me) would probably not carbon offset for the majority of the time. My guess prior to putting this question to the test was that 80% would not offset virtually any emissions. I was roughly right (with 82% having not offset any more than 20% of their flying emissions and 73% offsetting none). Below are the results of my poll which a bit over half the class participated in, together with some friends on my social networks.

In the last 2 years, how many flights have you taken?

None! 4 7%
1 to 3 10 18%
4 to 6 6 11%
7 to 9 6 11%
10 to 12 10 18%
12 to 15 3 5%
15 to 20 3 5%
20 to 25 1 2%
More than 25. 13 23%

What proportion of the flights you have taken were carbon offset?

None 40 73%
Up to 20% 5 9%
20 to 40% 4 7%
40 to 60% 2 4%
60 to 80% 2 4%
80 to 100% 2 4%
N/A I haven’t flown. 0 0%

If you have offset any of your flying emissions, what was the primary motivator?

I’m trying to minimise my impact on the environment. 12 23%
Work paid for it. 2 4%
I haven’t offset any of my flights. 36 68%
Other 3 6%

What would be the main reason for when you have not offset some flying emissions?

I don’t think it makes a big impact. 4 7%
The option wasn’t available easily to me when booking the flight. 24 44%
It costs too much. 10 18%
I don’t trust the offsetting agent to be spending my money in a way that effectively ‘offsets’ my emissions. 10 18%
N/A. I always offset. 1 2%
Other 6 11%

For a short haul flight (eg: London to Amsterdam) where a time-competitive alternative to flying exists, how much more money would you be prepared to pay for high speed train ticket?

I’ll always go the cheapest route for similar time impact. 23 42%
For up to 15% greater ticket price, I’d take the train. 15 27%
For 15 to 30% greater ticket price, I’d take the train 10 18%
For 30 to 50% greater ticket price, I’d take the train 2 4%
For 50 to 100% greater ticket price, I’d take the train 3 5%
I’d take the train even if it cost more than double the amount to fly. 2 4%

So is it not odd for a group of people with a relatively good understanding of sustainability that this is the case? Well some studies suggest that about 10% of the general public offsets on booking websites that provide the option during booking stage.

What can I say? Well money talks. But that’s a simplification of the answer. The results of the poll are anonymous so I do not have access to particular data about the participants beyond what was asked but the average age of the participant is probably about 24 to 25. Many are students or have recently finished their studies (hence the comment above). And there is a general distrust of the companies that provide this offsetting service. The offsetting service isn’t always readily available at the booking stage making the decision to offset a very conscious one. However when put to the final question of competing transport modes, most participants said that they would happily pay a premium for taking the train when the times taken would be equivalent to flying. Promising news for the high speed train operators going to Paris and Brussels then…

The golden age of cheap flying is upon us now I believe and as I have previously suggested. Many countries are now considering or have implemented carbon taxes or carbon trading. In a future world where such ‘bads’ as carbon are taxed the flying costs could well double. It remains however an interesting proposition as to what will happen to the cost of aviation fuel after government subsidies that presently allow it to be one of the world’s few truly tax exempt items everywhere.

I’m not suggesting of course that you should all book around the world tickets because it is so cheap. But I am highlighting how we have been lucky to have been avoiding paying taxes on carbon emissions to date in much of the world and be prepared (at some point) for an increase in flying costs as a result of this.

The second part of the challenge was on food. And the interesting dilemma on purchasing local food is oddly enough related to a refrigerator. The reason is that keeping local food in cold storage for some months prior to eating causes it’s ’embodied’ emissions to rise. So much so that a former student doing the same course as me suggested that it would be worse to buy a local apple 6 months out of season than it was to buy an apple from South Africa!

I haven’t checked to see if this statement weighs up (and back of the envelope calculations for this remain quite tricky) but in a similar vein the seafood that ends up on your table can have the same issue to a much greater extent due to it’s higher value. As was posted in the November issue of transition free press fish can really travel around the world prior to ending up on your plate.

The disturbing problem of world fish stocks is not a new one and the same article suggests that global fish hauls have flattened off since the early 1990s and may soon decline. That is that we have surpassed ‘peak fish,’ or that the stocks have declined so far that it is simply not possible to make as great a fish catch as was done a couple of decades ago even with improved technology. There aren’t enough fish there to be caught.

Fish farms don’t solve the problem either. And what really makes this a truly wicked problem is that by maintaining our demand for fish we are taking fish away as the primary protein source for many of the world’s poorest, who may also rely on it for their incomes, but don’t have the ability to compete with the ever improving technology of the floating fish factories that now ply their waters for foreign markets. What the article recommends ultimately is better awareness when purchasing fish of the impact. And it’s not so difficult in fact with android and iphone apps now available with the Good Fish Guide UK. (and international versions of this exist elsewhere too)

On the other hand, the general picture shows poultry and fish to be not so bad in carbon terms, although I suspect it was done with very different pieces of information available:

Two things that I have pretty much cut out of my diet are the far flying fruits and vegetables of the world (or possibly shipped). So that is, my tanzanian beans, and Colombian bananas. It doesn’t fix many problems however because it is a big part of the economy of these countries to export agricultural produce to the developed world. I also have been avoiding beef since it sits comfortably at the top of the food chain with regards to carbon per unit of meat intake. In all likelihood I will probably go back to bananas at some point, but it certainly hasn’t been overly difficult to switch to comice pears and braeburn apples for the last two months, even for use in my weetabix breakfast.

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