Educating the consumer on emissions caused by flying

Airlines and governments need to be held responsible for media messaging to customers about the emissions caused by flying at all stages – when booking a flight, in advertising and in competitions with flights as prizes.

Airplane on runway
Jennie Tomlinson

Why do airlines and governments not tell the truth – the whole truth – and inform us about the emissions and pollution associated with travelling by air?

We know now that the climate will not wait for us to act as slowly as we have been doing. If we do not act now, various tipping points will be reached (if indeed, they haven’t already). This means that irreversible environmental changes will happen very quickly, making life on Earth extremely difficult and uncomfortable – if not impossible in some situations. 

We have already started to see an unprecedented increase in catastrophic wildfires and other extreme weather events globally, as well as temperature records being broken around the world on the same day – an event previously unheard of. People in the global south have been suffering from climate-related disasters for the last few years – it’s only a (short) matter of time before we in the privileged north will also start to suffer badly. 

As supporters of the Green Party, we already know all this – but does the average consumer understand what it means for them? They deserve to know the consequences of their actions before deciding to fly.

The airwaves and newspapers are full of airlines' advertisements encouraging us to spend, spend, spend on low-cost package holidays and cheap no-frills flights – offers that must be very enticing to anyone facing the cost-of-living crisis. But flying is not free from huge impacts on global heating and air pollution. 

It is time for our Party to influence the government to adopt a policy for all media messages from the world of aviation to acknowledge the impact that flying has on the planet. This should be clear at the time of booking a flight, in free-holiday competitions and in related messages, whether online or offline. 

The impact of taking a flight should be clearly illustrated using real-world examples, in a similar vein to the health warnings on tobacco products. As well as expressing the impact of flying on climate change in graphic terms that the average person will understand, a flight’s carbon footprint could also be compared with an everyday action; for example, flying from London to Paris is the equivalent of boiling the water for 11,620 cups of tea (in a kettle), or streaming 2,218 hours of online video, or charging 14,884 smartphones. And let us not forget the air pollution caused by aircraft and airports, which affects wildlife as well as our own health.

If any greener alternatives are available for a flight, these could be suggested – for example, travel by train or boat, or use an airline flying on greener fuels (when they exist) – citing real evidence. 

It has now been shown that the popular carbon offsetting option that many operators have used as a ‘get out of jail free card’ is mostly just greenwash. Planting new trees will not have an appreciable effect for maybe 20 years – which will be much too late, particularly if existing mature forests continue to be destroyed while those new trees are growing.

With food labelling, the government has helped people avoid the health impacts of unwise food choices. Likewise, with the serious health consequences of smoking, the government of the time decided to inform the consumer so that they would be fully aware of its impact on their health. Both measures have reduced costs for the NHS, with a subsequent saving to the taxpayer. 

I ask you, therefore, to consider the health of the planet. Why is the current government not informing the consumer of the facts, while continuing to heavily subsidise an industry so wealthy that it attracts overseas investors due to its profitability? 

Aviation may, one day, achieve carbon neutrality. But no one silver bullet has yet been found to achieve this, either now or by the approaching deadline of 2030. Until that situation changes, the consumer must be educated about what flying means for the health of our planet and our environment. In conjunction with a policy that stops all airport expansion, we may stand a chance of reducing the amount of fossil-fuelled flying. 

The planet cannot wait for aviation to 'do the right thing' on its own – we’ve been trying that for years and it has manifestly failed. An obvious solution is to educate the consumer so they can make an informed decision about whether (or how much) to fly – to reduce greenhouse emissions and pollution now. 

Whatever we do, the planet itself will survive. But if we don’t stop burning fossil fuels now, most of its inhabitants (including us) may not.

Jennie Tomlinson is a volunteer proofreader and copy editor for CAGNE (Communities Against Gatwick Noise and Emissions). She has pledged not to fly until aviation is truly carbon-neutral.