In just a few days the political great and good will assemble in Paris for COP21, to talk about possibly saving the world, and everything in it, from devastating climate change. See here for pictures of children, to demonstrate that this is a grave concern, and M Hollande looking businesslike.
The impact of climate change, like its severity and the speed of its implementation, gets worse every time the science improves. Current estimates of the human toll, modelled by the likes of the WHO, are always conservative – underestimating morbidity in particular, but we do know that our actions (and I mean us, the lucky populations of the wealthiest nations) are causing hundreds of thousands of premature deaths, mostly among the poorest.
50,000 COP21 participants, including 25,000 official delegates from governments, global agencies and NGOs, will fly from all around the world to address this terrifying issue. And if anyone is going to fly, with the huge carbon emissions it generates and the extra climate impact of emission at altitude, I guess these are the people who have the right.
But why, when the evidence is so clear, is there not more debate about air travel? For most of us, flying is by far the worst behaviour we display when it comes to environmental destruction and threatening the lives of others. Why do we not have robust models for how many plane kilometres, or how many individual air trips cost a life? Or indeed for how many lives per plane? Is someone out there developing the evidence?
In his intelligent primer on climate, How Bad are Bananas, Mike Berners-Lee goes where others fear to tread, prompted by a discussion with a friend who engaged him in discussion about whether it’s better to use a paper towel or an electric drier in the toilets. As Berners-Lee noted, “the same person flies across the Atlantic literally dozens of times a year. The flying is tens of thousands of times more important than the hand drying. My friend was simply distracting himself from the issue”.
So Berners-Lee asks himself the question we should all be asking: How many tonnes (CO2) for a life or a death? He acknowledges that this is just an estimate, but fine, he puts the number out there and now anyone who wants to can improve on it. His estimate is 150 tonnes of CO2 (or the climate change equivalent) per climate-related death.
So this is where Berners-Lee is taking us: “if your lifestyle had the footprint of the average UK citizen, one person would have to die from climate change somewhere in the world every 10 years”.
This focus on per capita emissions is crucial. We duck our responsibilities by pointing at the scale of emissions by countries with larger populations, but this is cynical and misleading. Each of us should take responsibility for our own individual impact, and if our individual lifestyle requires someone to die every decade, we have to change it. By cutting out the most polluting things we do. Air travel is by far the most polluting thing we do, as individuals.
How Bad are Bananas is five years old now, but few of us have addressed our climate-influencing behaviour and global emissions are still on the up. Buy the book if you haven’t already, and think about what it tells us. Brilliant researchers and analysts of the world, please harden up the science so that none of us can use ignorance as our excuse.....
..... and for now take the only possible decision – dry your hands how you like, but stop the air travel.