The narrative around climate change has been cranked up a notch or two of late and I relish this renewed focus. We’re looking at how to fix a great many broken things with fresh enthusiasm. Many people are walking around with a proverbial shotgun, hunting down and identifying antagonists with a lynch vibe and — boy oh boy — there is a splendid selection of antagonists to choose from.

Bizarrely, people who fly have been placed firmly on the front line with a red laser dot wavering ominously on their forehead. People flying to visit family and friends, to experience foreign cultures or people just doing their job — are these really the bogeymen that we need to target? Are they the evil henchmen from the industrial complex that need to be named, shamed and taken down?

No. They’re not. There is no sociology or anthropology factored into all of these carbon footprint calculators. When you ignore such things, you’ll never get an honest reading. Nor does it seem like an intelligent communication strategy if we’re desperately trying to get our collective team inspired for change.

I fly a lot with my work. I have spent the past decade trying to make cities better through urban design. Designing, among other things, the bicycle infrastructure necessary for modernising and improving urban transport, doing keynotes to spread the good message and participating on projects with urban sustainability goals. I fly on holidays with my kids to visit family on the other side of the world and to experience different cultures.

Don’t worry, I’m not making excuses for flying — the whole point of this article is that I don’t need to.

When headlines started to appear shaming people who fly, I did what my mother taught me to do. Look into it. The headline culture we live in is often misleading. For example, a study came out in Denmark a few years ago, declaring pizza to be unhealthy. Many people read it and bought the message wholesale. I looked behind the headline and saw that they tested pizzas at 30 fast food pizza joints around the country and found that they put too much cheese on their pizzas and presto! Pizza is unhealthy. I only eat pizza from an excellent Italian place in my neighbourhood and real Italian pizza doesn’t have too much cheese on it — just like the pizza I make at home. So my family and I could happily disregard the sensationalism.

It’s not difficult to get warped messages across in our headline culture. If you google “eat chocolate while dieting to lose weight”, you’ll get endless hits confirming the claim. The problem is that it isn’t true. This guy faked some science, got it published in dodgy scientific journals and convinced the global media that it was true. In order to prove the point about headline culture.

Headlines bounce around like ping pong balls. The esteemed New Yorker Magazine wrote recently that eating 4 lbs of beef a month equals flying from New York to London. Oh, wait, no it doesn’t.

People who fly are merely an easy target and seem to have been condemned by the Internet Jury simply because of this fact. The police in Copenhagen famously go after cyclists in order to fulfill their quotas simply because they are easier to catch. Why spend time chasing down dangerous, law-breaking motorists? So tiresome.

One of the world’s leading climate scientists, Michael Mann, puts it rather succinctly in a recent interview:

“First of all, there is an attempt being made by them to deflect attention away from finding policy solutions to global warming towards promoting individual behaviour changes that affect people’s diets, travel choices and other personal behaviour,” said Mann. “This is a deflection campaign and a lot of well-meaning people have been taken in by it.”

“Mann stressed that individual actions — eating less meat or avoiding air travel — were important in the battle against global warming. However, they should be seen as additional ways to combat global warming rather than as a substitute for policy reform.”

Policy reform is vital. However, in a recent episode of my The Life-Sized City urbanism podcast, I interviewed the leading sustainability writer, Chris Turner. He points out that national governments are the slowest moving things we have ever invented. We all instinctively know this and perhaps therefore seek an easier target: people who travel more than we do.

“When Envy breeds unkind division: there comes the ruin, there begins confusion.” Shakespeare, Henry VI.

Let’s be clear. I’m not claiming that flying doesn’t have a negative effect on climate change. I am merely highlighting the fact that there are bigger fish to fry once you move move past the headline hype.

Even all these Carbon Footprint calculators are questionable and I’ve tried many of them, out of curiosity. In the calculations, the data used often doesn’t reflect real world situations. I’ve seen the reoccurring figure of 55 g of C02 emissions per passenger km for an average car. This assumes that there are four people in the car, which is rare. The occupancy rate in the US, for example, is 1.54 people per vehicle per mile. Which could mean the emissions are 220 g when just one person is in the car.

Compare that with the estimated emissions of 285 g C02 per passenger km for a plane. The data used to generate this number assumes there are an average of 88 people on a plane. This article did some math and suggests we can assume 115 passengers, instead of 88, which would bring the number down. Then there’s stuff like energy intensity.

The point is that it’s all rather muddied.

It’s not news that the climate crisis is upon us and that we need to act. The science is completely and utterly clear about this real and present danger. If we are to be effective going forward, let’s be better at identifying the most important approach.

If our house is on fire, as it indeed is, where would you point your hoses? Look at the graphic above showing where greenhouse gas emissions come from, based on sector. They all have a negative impact on climate change. Instinctively, where would you spray the water to start with?

This is where global emissions come from. You probably decided to start hosing down the Energy Sector, on the left. On the right is that sector broken down. There is work to be done in every sector. Transitioning from fossil fuel power plants to sustainable energy like solar and wind is absolutely key to tackling the issue about how we generate electricity and heat. As is investment in more sustainable homes and buildings. Manufacturing and construction is another industrial sector in need of sustainable modernisation, and one that we hear little about. They’re awfully quiet. Then there is the green slice of pie: Transportation. Moving around our cities or countries is often integral to daily life.

Here is a graph that zooms in on the transportation sector. It shows the sources of greenhouse gas emissions by transport mode. Again, onto which part of THIS burning house should we point our fire hoses? Don’t think, just start spraying. Time is short.

Looks like a no brainer, doesn’t it? You would think so anyway. That massive and rising ocean of red requires our immediate attention. It is clearly the elephant in the room and yet we are, by and large, ignoring it. A wildfire is raging and we’re bitching about a campfire in the next valley.

Here’s what the graph looks like. Road transport has been off the charts since 1970 and shows no sign of improvement. It rages on, unchecked. Even when you lump maritime shipping, rail and flying together in the same category, as on the graph on the right, the elephant is still ignored.

Once you see the elephant in the room, it’s hard to unsee it. We are in effect spending an astronomical amount subsidising cars — and the fossil fuel infrastructure required to run them — roads and highways. The two graphs above are focused on the European Union but it’s not hard to transfer the general concept to other regions. The external costs (and note that the costs of congestion isn’t even included here, which would send the columns for cars, buses/coaches and light/heavy goods vehicles even higher) are massive and affect several aspects of our lives. On the right, you can see what we are paying in infrastructure costs.

Unlike rail, airports and ports, which are run like businesses and require a healthy Return on Investment to survive, car infrastructure gives little back to society.

From the book Copenhagenize — the definitive guide to global bicycle urbanism

In Denmark we have measured the ROI for bicycles as transport and for cars. For each kilometre someone rides a bike, we earn €0.25. For every kilometre someone drives a car, we lose €0.87. The best business model in the history of transportation meets the absolute worst.

As I was finishing up this article, yet another study came to light, linking the nanoparticles from car exhaust to brain cancer for the first time. Air pollution caused by car emissions is a massive part of the elephant we’re ignoring.

Read: Planes Or Cars — Which Pollutes The Most? Which Is More Sustainable?

Missing the Point — and Opportunities

I am firmly convinced that our efforts can be better directed as we scramble to figure out solutions to fight climate change. I ask you to consider how wise it is to shame people who travel by plane for a myriad of good reasons when we aren’t shaming people who drive, for example, in cities when other options exist — or could exist with little effort. Like bike lanes or Bus Rapid Transit.

I suggested we start a concerted car shaming effort in this interview I gave with the German Zeit Online news outlet, entitled Driving is the New Smoking. It’s in German, but you can google translate it. I thoroughly enjoyed the shitstorm it caused in the comments. Not to mention the hate mail I received. What a hoot.

At the moment, the flying shaming is just causing a few grumbles here and there. Hit them where it hurts and where you create the most debate. In doing so you’ll save lives lost in car crashes, reduce pollution/emissions and make cities (where most people live) better for everyone — all fighting climate change in the process.

It’s hard to keep track of all of the incredibly important issues under the massive umbrella of climate change. We’re inundated with news about pressing issues. Statistically and morally, going after plane passengers seems misplaced when we’re not tackling other serious issues.

Where is the massive backlash against the top 20 global oil and gas firms who have contributed 35% of all energy-related C02 and methane worldwide since 1965?

Where are the street protests against the fashion industry, which single-handedly exceeds the emissions from flying and shipping?

Where is the definitive call for a massive wind and solar transition? Or for energy-efficient homes? Or a name and shame of the construction industry? Where is the #CruiseShipShame campaign? Are you telling me that the world’s most unsustainable tourism doesn’t merit public shaming?

Where is the uproar that just three companies; Coca Cola, Pepsi and Nestle are the world’s largest plastic polluters? Or that Big Oil is now investing $180 BILLION in new plastic production plants that will increase plastic production by an estimated 40%?

Today I read about the impending insect apocalypse — where 400,000 insect species face extinction due to pesticides. That seems pretty fucking important.

But nah. It’s so much easier to whine about your neighbour who hiked up Macchu Pichu or your school friend who Instagrammed selfies with their new boyfriend/girlfriend/non-binary partner from a beach in Croatia. Isn’t it?

Most of the narrative about shaming people who fly stems from two car producing nations that vehemently defend their automotive industries: Sweden and Germany. I just think that’s hilarious. For all the beauty and passion of Greta Thunberg in her role in this narrow window of climate attentiveness, I can’t help but think about her misguided, choreographed stunts. Yeah… I inter-railed around Europe when I was a teenager. Didn’t meet the Pope, though. I also hitched a ride on a sailboat with a German couple, from Fiji to New Zealand, back in the day, although a crew didn’t have to fly in to sail the boat back and no one flew out to meet me. (And they were naturists so I basically sailed the South Seas butt naked. Completely irrelevant for this article, but I just remembered that…)

The narrative around shaming people who fly is also far from cohesive. It’s messy and confusing, which is often the case when arguments are weak.

It’s not like the 8 million people a day who fly are all posh gits, waltzing onto aeroplanes carrying chihuahuas in their Gucci purse. We all know that flying is an aerial version of public transport. Business class on long haul flights ain’t glamorous. If you think it’s like Paris Hilton’s Instagram, you’ll be disappointed. It’s just a more comfortable sleep with better silverware. That’s it. (Yes, I follow Paris Hilton on Instagram. It is a fantastic, kitsch and corny addition to my daily feed and my sense of humour high-fives me for it)

How about we take a moment to consider airlines. You can’t compare them in any way, shape or form to climate-hating behemoths like Big Oil or Big Auto. They’re as tough to run as a public transit system in a city. No wonder that bankruptcy rates for airlines are traditionally high.

The hoses are pointed in the wrong direction all over the place. Things could be so much more effective and efficient.

The teens leading the current charge are important and brilliant but I have a hard time identifying their game plan apart from pressuring governments to act. I met a young Norwegian dubbed as that country’s “Greta Thunberg” earlier this year. Fantastic performer on stage, with a smooth, inspiring narrative. Face to face afterwards I attempted to engage them with conversation about how focus is sorely needed. All I got was “we’ll fix everything!” Damn, I love chutzpah and youthful enthusiasm but with the crisis we’re facing, I fear it’s not enough without a plan or a deeper understanding of the issues — let alone knowledge of the history of the narrative over the past half century. You can’t learn from mistakes if you don’t know about them.

It reminds me of too many politicians — and I meet them all over the planet in my work. Bold and brash but not many concrete ideas. Just broad brushstrokes and enough passion to generate adoring crowds. It’s rather frustrating when you want so desperately — as I do — to expand the team and work passionately together.

I remember being absolutely captivated by a teenager who enthralled the world with her plea to global leaders to do something quick about the climate. I cried while watching it.

Not THAT teenager — the ORIGINAL. Severn Cullis-Suzuki.

She spoke at the Rio de Janeiro Climate Conference at the age of thirteen. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of optimism. Finally… the turning point that THIS young idealist had been waiting for. Showtime!

That was 27 years ago. As Chris Turner points out in the aforementioned podcast, we’ve spent 25 years convincing people that climate change is real instead of actually doing anything about it. Is this the next quarter century, too?

I remain an optimist and an idealist who works for positive change. That’s how I am hardwired. That’s the life I’ve chosen. But with age comes the inevitability of experience and… perhaps… a thin slice of scepticism. Because the latest passionate, brilliant and media-savvy teenager — one with an awesome superpower — to capture the fleeting attention of the world seems like… a remake of the original. Hey, remakes can be good and this one is starting out well. But what if the storyline deteriorates or some other issue comes along and dominates the global news cycles? The media loves to move on.

What to do what to do

I’ve often said that environmentalism is the greatest marketing flop in the history of homo sapiens. How about we mix it up a bit and start with focus and rationality, for fuck’s sake. Fifty years of finger-wagging environmentalism with sweeping generalisations begone.

Let’s address the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. Big Auto and Big Oil desperately want you to ignore the elephant. They are so deathly silent as the flying shaming carries on. There’s some serious money in it if people revert to cars if flying becomes the new smoking. Not to mention the construction industry who will thoroughly enjoy the profit that comes with building more freeways to serve said cars.

Let’s be clear: there need to be alternatives in place before we start insisting on change. You can’t expect everyone to ride bikes for transport if you don’t have any protected bike lanes in your city. Fly less if you want to. Great. But if we’re going to talk about flying, then let’s zoom in on domestic routes first. After the high-speed train between Barcelona and Madrid was opened, flights dropped by 70%. Let’s divert a bunch of money from car infrastructure to building trains. Slap a hefty tax on flights where a sound alternative exists. Subsidise rail travel. Ban private jets owned by the wealthy. TAX the wealthy, too. Jeez.

Do all the things you’re (hopefully) doing now and take it to the next level. Recycle, eat less meat, buy organic, take public transport, buy fewer clothes, repair broken appliances and household items, take shorter showers, put a sweater on instead of cranking up the heat, plant an urban garden, reduce food waste, etc, etc. You know the drill.

Lobby for infrastructure that will force behaviour change. I recycle my garbage in great detail because all the containers are conveniently located in my back courtyard. My food waste goes to a biogas facility to generate heat for homes. I ride a bike in my city because there are protected bike lanes everywhere — demand them in your city. Fight for energy transition to sustainable sources. I buy organic food at every opportunity — indeed, Danes buy the most organic food in the world because it’s been made accessible and competitively-priced.

The video above is from the Austrian campaign Autofasten — or Car Fasting.

But add to all that some rationality. Stop ignoring the elephant in the room. Embrace car shaming. Sell your car or drive it less. Fifty percent of Americans live within 8 km of their workplace — a similar number to Europe. There’s a low-hanging fruit right there. How about banning short trips by car under 5 km? If we’re going to get angry and demand change, let’s shout at the right people. (But don’t forget to be funny, too)

If we’re going to fight climate change successfully, it’ll happen in the cities, in our daily lives. Long before any national policy will be effective. Urban change can be done fast and effective.

There are much bigger fish to fry than regular citizens flying.

Urban playmaker, designer, host of The Life-Sized City tv series about urbanism. Author of “Copenhagenize”. Impatient Idealist.

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