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Is that overseas holiday or work conference really necessary? According to sustainability expert Andrew Glover, long-haul plane trips are a key contributor to climate change that we need to address.

MARGO WHITE: You say flying is one of the most environmentally damaging activities we undertake. How so?

ANDREW GLOVER: Essentially, for the same reasons that driving is. When we’re flying in a big plane, we’re burning fossil fuels, non-renewable resources, and in the course of that, emitting greenhouse gases. There are also the contrails, the vapor produced by aircraft engines at high altitude, which contribute to increased cloudiness in the atmosphere and to the radiative forces of climate change. There’s the fuel that planes often have to dump in the air in the course of landing. Noise pollution is another environmental impact, with airports expanding and new airports being built, which can have a detrimental impact on the neighborhoods nearby.

It has been estimated that one flight from Australia to Europe creates about 4.5 tons of carbon, which is a lot of carbon.

And put another way, one international flight a year is almost the same, in terms of your carbon footprint, as driving for a year. If you do a return trip to London from Australia, that’s about 15,000 kilometers each way, so a plane carrying 500 people has about the equivalent impact of 500 cars driving that same distance.

As you point out in a recent article, air travel is increasing by six percent each year, which is outpacing any gains in efficiency.

Yes, and a lot of that is happening in the developing world, in places like China, which is building dozens of airports each year. As people get wealthier they are able to fly more, particularly when oil is cheap and so air tickets are cheap, like they are now. They’re likely to stay cheap for a while, but this comes at an enormous environmental cost.

Are people really aware of the environmental cost of flying?

Probably, in the way they are with driving, but flying is now so normalized it’s very easy to ignore. And you don’t really see the pollution that you might with other environmentally damaging activities – in the way that you might see smoke pollution pouring out the back of truck.

Houston, we have a problem. I understand that airports and aircraft are designed for historical weather conditions, and will need to be rebuilt in response to climate change?

Yes, planes weren’t able to take off from Arizona a couple of years ago, because it was over 48 degrees Celsius on the tarmac, and there was just not enough air density for planes to be able to take off. So it’s going to be a lot hotter, we’re going to be experiencing more heat waves, and it will be quite a regular occurrence that, on a hot day in various parts of the world, planes won’t be able to take off.

You’ve suggested that we could consider virtual reality as a way to experience a place while staying home. Seriously?

A number of companies are developing virtual environments, and the idea is that people can go in and experience them as though they were there, physically. It’s more suited to places like museums, art galleries and churches, the kind of places we like to visit when we travel. Obviously it doesn’t work for things like hiking, or visiting family and friends, but if we were able to create some of these tourist sites in virtual reality that would give you a sense of a place, a chance to explore, it could provide an occasional alternative to travel.

Academics are notorious for flying a lot, to attend conferences on the other side of the world. But you attended an academic conference using a telepresence robot?

Academics do fly a lot; we did a survey of Australian academics and found that about 90 percent of them had traveled to a conference in the previous 12 months. I was looking for ways that academics could attend these events remotely, and reduce their carbon footprint, and I came across telepresence robots – robots on wheels that have a screen and microphones and camera. They’re used in a few ways, for remote medical work for instance.

So I attended a conference in the UK using one of these robots. It was a research experience, but people were waving to me, introducing themselves, taking selfies with me. Obviously it wasn’t the same as being there – I wasn’t sitting down and eating with people, I was restricted in where I could move, and I was a robot not a person.

Was it close to being there?

It worked pretty well for the presentations. It wasn’t so good for networking sessions, when people are moving around a lot and you have a lot of noise clutter. And the robot was quite short, so I was at waist height, which was a little bit awkward.

But if more people were doing this, you’d go to a conference and most of the people there would be attending as robots. That would obviously save a lot of carbon emissions. I think robots are worth thinking about, or at least incorporating them into practice a bit more.

Apart from deciding to stay home, what can the average consumer do, to fly in a way that’s more sustainable, or at least a bit less unsustainable?

Take non-stop flights, rather than flights that have a lot of stopovers. A lot of fuel is used in take-off and landing. Planes are most fuel-efficient when they’re up in the air and cruising.

And fly planes that pack their flights. It’s a way of making better use of the resources that are going to be used anyway. My saying is, the only thing worse than flying on a plane packed with people is flying on plane that is only half full of people. Airlines that pack their flights do tend to be the budget airlines, and you hardly get any legroom so it might not be that comfortable, but a packed flight does mean that greater numbers of people are getting the benefits of air travel.

What about carbon offsetting schemes?

There are still significant theoretical and practical issues around carbon offsetting. I wouldn’t say they’re ever going to be a solution, but rather an evolving attempt at mitigating some of the impact of flying.

Your takeaway message then?

Mainly, to recognize that flying does have an environmental impact, in the way that we recognize the impact of other consumer decisions we make on a daily basis.

And to think about the benefits that the travel will bring, either to yourself or other people. I don’t think everyone should stop flying completely, as flying is integrated into the way the world works. If you’re an academic flying to a conference that is going to bring exponential benefits to, say, how we approach climate change, then maybe it’s worth it. But I think we need to be more innovative about the way we can have an impact.

And do you really need to fly to that island to lie on the beach for a week, or could we have that experience closer to home, without flying?

Andrew Glover is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow with the Sustainable Urban Precincts Program (SUPP), an initiative at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia, to help staff and students realize sustainable practices on and off campus. His current research focuses on practices of academic air travel, remote presence and digital engagement.

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