Air Travel — How Not To Reduce Global Warming, In Two Easy Steps

Pardon me if I’m sounding like a latter day Cassandra wrapped in a wet towel, but my heart does not leap up in joy, unlike the poet’s, on learning that both Air-India and Indigo have ordered 500 additional planes each for their fleet. Nor did said heart do a backflip when the Civil Aviation Minister announced, at a rally presided over by the Prime Minister last week, that the number of airports would be doubled in the next ten years. Even if we discount some of this as hyperbole attributable to his Chief Ministerial ambitions in MP, even then that’s a lot of new airports- about 200, I believe.

It’s a recipe for environmental disaster. The United Nations Secretary-General has just released the latest IPCC report, which has warned us that the global warming threshold of 1.5* Celsius will be crossed in 1935 because emissions, instead of declining to 1990 levels as targeted, are actually going UP every year. The reason we are headed for this environmental apocalypse, in spite of technological innovations ( renewables, EVs, plant based meat, plastic substitutes etc.) is simple: we are just not willing to change our life styles to a more sustainable model. For the vast majority of mankind it is business as usual; we continue as before in what we eat, how we travel, how we over exploit finite natural resources like water and trees, how we build, how we consume power. For an increasingly purblind homo sapiens comfort and convenience are more important than the future of the planet. Flying is one dimension of this stupidity.

The number of air travelers will double to 8.2 billion by 2036; 75% of them travel for pleasure and don’t need to go by plane. Aviation spews about 1.50 billion tonnes of GHGs into the atmosphere every year and is the most polluting form of travel. Below is the table for emissions by various modes of travel per passenger kilometer:

Plane   154 gms

[For one business class passenger it is 462 gms, and 616 gms for a first class one]

Car       171 gms for one passenger/car

43 gms if 4 passengers

Bus      104 gms

Rail      41 gms

Add to this dismal scenario the environmental and social costs of building airports- thousands of hectares of usually prime land concretised for each airport,  thousands of families displaced and pushed into penury,  millions of trees felled,  hundreds of megawatts of additional power needed to operate the airports. To take just one example closest to where I live, the new Jewar airport coming up in Noida: when all four phases are complete, a total of 4752 hectares of land would be acquired; 19961 families (37025 individuals) would be displaced in just the first two of four phases. All this so that 4 million passengers can take off and land here every year- that’s about 20000 flights. This is in addition to the 60 million well heeled chaps doing the same at the Indira Gandhi airport every year.

An even more harebrained example is from my own state of Himachal where an obdurate government is hell-bent on building a so-called “international” airport in Mandi which no one wants. It will destroy 237 hectares of irrigated, multi-cropped farmland and forests, uproot a population of 12000, mainly Dalits and OBCs, seriously dent the state’s food growing capacity, and in no way help the tourism sector (which is the specious justification for it). The state’s three existing airports are dismal failures, functioning well below 50% of their designed capacity, and yet the govt. is ready to splurge Rs. 5000 crores on the project, even though it does not have the money to pay Dearness Allowance to its employees.

And we want to reduce global warming?

Aviation is one of the biggest force multipliers of inequity- economic, environmental, social- especially in a backward country like ours. It is an elitist sector because it serves not even 1% of the population whereas the costs are borne by farmers, landless labourers, villagers and the other 99% of the population. It is also not an essential service within a country because alternatives are available which are far less damaging to the environment. I refer here especially to the railways.

Graphic Courtesy: atmosfair

I have never been able to understand why people fly on short-haul routes (3 to 4 hours) instead of taking a train or going by car. Take for example a route I am familiar with, Delhi-Chandigarh. It takes four hours by train and five by road. In contrast, a flyer will take the same time, if not more, house to house if one factors in the drive to and from the city to the airport at both ends, the need to report at least 90 minutes before departure, the actual flying time, and the time taken to deplane and collect one’s baggage; it is also costlier by a multiple of at least three. So why do people fly on short-haul? Elitism? Snobbishness? Pure habit? You tell me, because I can’t figure it out.

This is where the govt. comes in, or should come in, if it was not so mesmerised by big ticket projects and the prospect of bountiful payola from contractors. It should discourage, as a policy, short-haul flights and simultaneously expand on a war footing the rail network and services. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it should give up its love affair with expressways (at the risk of disappointing Mr. Gadkari) and spend the same money on new high speed rail tracks and rakes so that it could operate more trains. It is in this context that one has to commend the emphasis imparted to the new series of Vande Bharat trains, of which there are now 14. They match the planes for comfort, catering, snob value and total journey time and are far cheaper. The environmental benefits are even more telling: one Vande Bharat can carry the same number of passengers as 11 short-haul flights. If we extrapolate from the table in para 3 above, this means that every 300 km run of a Vande Bharat saves 75 tonnes of CO2 and other emissions as compared to corresponding number of flights for the same number of passengers.

While we are busy redacting the Moghuls and making blood money off Ukraine, other countries are beginning to realise the immense contribution of aviation to global warming, and are beginning to take steps to regulate its expansion. The U.K. has finally given up plans to build a third runway at Heathrow, in deference to the protests of its citizens. (Incidentally, the Jewar airport will have five runways !). The Dutch govt. has decided to reduce flights to and from the Schiphol airport by 50000 per annum- from 500,000 to 450,000. (The matter is in the courts but the govt. is determined to push it through).

Sweden has spawned a citizens’ movement in 2019 called “We Stay on the Ground” which asks people to pledge not to fly. Tens of thousands of pledges have been obtained so far and a new word has been coined to convey flight shaming- “flygskam”. People are responding positively- the number of flyers came down by 3.7% in the first year itself and train travel has increased by 30%. So far eight countries have joined this movement- U.K, USA, Canada, Denmark, Belgium, France and Germany. It is no coincidence that these countries feature at the top in the list of happiest countries in the world. They value their natural environment and health, add a price to it and are prepared to pay the price.

Unlike us, the Indian elite, who think that Mr. Modi and Baba Ramdev have instant solutions to all the problems of the planet, and we can continue with our ecocidal life styles for ever. We do not for even a moment think of the massive inequity and injustice inherent in this life style. Consider this: every time you take a business class flight from Delhi to Mumbai to attend an Ambani wedding (or whatever) you are adding as much GHG emissions to the atmosphere in two hours as the average Indian does in 6 months ! 

Will Niti Ayog do the maths and stop harping on that old chestnut of “historical injustice” by the West to justify policies that encourage more emissions ? We missed the industrial revolution bus long ago, and should stop cutting off our nose to spite someone else’s face. Mr. Modi and his team should take time off from tiger safaris and consider some hard decisions. Like banning private jets altogether, impose a moratorium on new short-haul flights, stop building new airports unless they are needed for strategic reasons, impose a hefty carbon tax on air tickets, ask airlines to stop their frequent flyer programmes as they only incentivise more air travel, stop dishing out those dozens of free air-tickets to MPs and MLAs, make it mandatory for govt. employees to travel by train instead of by air. That would be a start. The meek may or may not inherit the world but the rich certainly don’t own it.

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