At midday on Wednesday, 9 November 2011, I will be interviewed by BBC Hardtalk’s Stephen Sackur at the World Travel Market as part of World Responsible Tourism Day.

To mark the event, my publisher is offering a special deal on my book The Final Call.

Anyone attending can purchase the book for the discounted price of £6, which includes free UK p&p.  To order, please call 01206 255 800 and quote “WTM2011”.


Thanks for visiting, but I’m afraid this site is in a dormant state at present.

The best place to keep up-to-date with what I’ve been writing about is here.

Alternatively, you can now follow me on Twitter @leohickman

Thanks again, Leo

A blog written for Comment is Free about Ed Miliband’s comments about how he will not act to curb aviation emissions because he doesn’t “want to have a situation where only rich people can afford to fly”…

Very interesting – and telling – words this week from Ed Miliband regarding the so-called “right to fly”. The climate change and energy secretary told the Guardian that he didn’t “want to have a situation where only rich people can afford to fly”, and would therefore not be seeking to include aviation within the government’s broad commitment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 80% by 2050.

“Where I disagree with other people on aviation is if you did 80% cuts across the board, as some people have called for on aviation, you would go back to 1974 levels of flying,” he said. Miliband picked out the airport within his own constituency, Doncaster Sheffield, as an example. “People in my constituency have benefited from being able to have foreign travel which, 40 years ago, the middle classes took for granted,” he said. “There are sacrifices and changes in lifestyle necessary. But the job of government is to facilitate them and understand people’s lives and what they value.”

What Miliband seems to be saying is that flying is now so important to people’s lives in the UK that it deserves to be treated as a special case. It should be largely immune to the tough targets and systematic transition that all other sectors are going to have to experience if exacting carbon reductions are ever to be achieved. So rather than have fair, across-the-board cuts, Miliband is firing the starter gun for every sector to throw up its hands and say that it too deserves special exemption. To take this to its logical conclusion, someone is going to have to make the decision about who deserves such favouritism.

If aviation is going to be allowed to grow and emit without restrictions, another sector is going to have to make up the shortfall. If we really love flying so much, who do we want this to be? The NHS? Universities? Local authorities? If we really want to start prioritising our most valued services and facilities in this manner, then we need to urgently have that discussion.

But I’m not comfortable whenever the class issue is thrown into the ring to support the aviation lobby’s argument. Miliband is the latest person to fall for this old chestnut. It has been a debating tool for years, but it never stands up to scrutiny.

Let’s look at Doncaster Sheffield airport, as Miliband is asking – even if it isn’t wholly representative. It accounted for less than half of 1% of the total number of UK passengers passing through our airports in 2007, according to the latest Civil Aviation Authority figures, but it does have the highest percentage – 94% – of so-called “leisure” travellers of all the UK airports. These are the types of passengers that come in for the most criticism when people are talking about the growth in discretionary flying over the past decade or so. (This category includes “visiting friends and relatives” – so-called VFRs – which is arguably the least discretionary of all the reasons to fly, but that often gets drowned out in this debate.)

What “class” are these passengers? And has there been a significant shift in their demographic profile over the years? ABC1-type analysis seems to largely ignored or viewed as inherently flawed these days, so let’s look at something most people understand – income. Civil Aviation Authority figures (pdf) for 2007/2008 say that the mean household income of leisure passengers using Doncaster Sheffield airport was £41,016. This compares to the latest Office for National Statistics figures, which state that the average UK household income in 2006/07 was £30,000. The mismatch doesn’t exactly lead you to shout “working class all aboard” – and this is for an airport you would consider to support Miliband’s argument given its higher-than-average volume of so-called “cheap flights”.

When the Environmental Change Institute at Oxford University looked at the “socio-demographic characteristics of [UK] air passengers” in its 2006 report Predict and Provide (p29, pdf), it concluded that the “available evidence suggests that flying is largely undertaken by those in richer households, and that most of the growth in flying is coming from people in such households flying more often”. Again, it doesn’t exactly support Miliband’s argument that the skies are now awash with the working class, say, taking mini-breaks to Europe, or visiting their second homes abroad.

And all this in the week when the airline industry – already one of the most cosseted sectors in the world due to its advantageous tax breaks on fuel – is saying it is suffering an “annus horribilis“. Are we really going to fall for yet another well-orchestrated sob story from the world’s fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions?

A blog for Guardian Environment about a green tourist tax being proposed by the Maldives’ new environment minister…

With the rain coming down and the crowd in boisterous mood waiting for their beloved Paul Weller to take to the stage, it took a very brave politician to step before the microphone and make a speech about rising sea levels and carbon neutrality.

But this is what Mohamed Aslam did on Friday night at the Eden Project in Cornwall. Following a short introduction by Tim Smit, Eden’s founder and permanent source of renewable energy, the 6,000-strong crowd greeted Aslam with warm applause. Any home-grown politician would have no doubt received a one-finger salute, but Aslam spoke with genuine authority and passion on the issue of climate change as he is the minister of environment (and housing and transport) in the Maldives, the Indian ocean island state that now lies at the “frontline”, as he describes it, of any future rise in sea levels.

(By contrast, Prince Charles was jeered when he addressed the crowd by pre-recorded video to talk about his Rainforests Project and, somewhat incongruously, to thank Paul Weller and Florence and the Machine for playing at the Green Britain Day event, which was being controversially sponsored by EDF Energy.)

Aslam, an oceanographer by training, told the crowd that his country – which not only has to confront climate change, but has also had to recover from the 2004 tsunami as well as last year’s volatile presidential elections – now seeks “partners” to help it become the world’s first carbon-neutral country.

Once Paul Weller had completed the last of his encores, I got the chance to speak to Aslam about why he had travelled all the way from the Maldives to address the crowd in person. (I didn’t remember to ask him what he made of the main act, but did see him at one stage tapping his toes to Eton Rifles.) He said:

The science is sorted and politicians around the world have been going on and on about tackling climate change, but nothing really is being done. Ordinary people must stand up to this. I would rather speak to a crowd here at Eden than to politicians at Copenhagen. We want to make our problems everyone’s problems. We need partners. We want to invest in green technology. As a frontline state, we want to demonstrate this technology works. If we perish we want to show that we were trying to do the right thing. But we don’t want to be beggars and we can’t tell our people they can’t have development. There are 196 inhabited islands which need power. We use marine diesel generators now, but we can easily replace them.

It’s not long before we are talking about the subject of tourism and that fact that 60% of the Maldives’ economy is reliant on a wealthy few jetting in from thousands of miles away to spend two weeks in paradise. It’s a paradox that Aslam is ready to admit and one that his government is keen to address before the climate talks in Copenhagen at the end of the year.

“We will continue with tourism,” he said. “We have to. It will hurt us a lot to lose them. But we now want to reach out to tourists who visit the Maldives. They must help us go carbon neutral. A green levy for tourists is now being discussed by the new government ahead of Copenhagen.”

Aslam wouldn’t go into specifics about exactly how much tourists would be expected to pay – the cabinet is to discuss the idea shortly, he said – but he did say the revenue raised would be ring-fenced and only used to develop sources of renewable energy. Such a move would be both risky and controversial, though.

“Green” tourism taxes have been tried before, but were met with fierce resistance by tour operators and hotel owners who fear that the taxes drive potential custom away. In 2003, the Balearic Islands abandoned a modest “€1 per day per person” green tourism tax after just a year in operation, and when the New Zealand tourism minister mooted a similar idea last year it provoked an immediate industry backlash. However, the Maldives’ new government has already pledged to redirect some of the revenue it generates via tourism into buying a new homeland – possibly in Sri Lanka or India – for the time when its 300,000 islanders are finally forced to flee their homes and become environmental refugees.

It is rare to meet a politician who has such a genuine sense of urgency and priority when it comes to climate change. As he says, his frontline status demands it. But what, I asked him, is it like to live with the realities of climate change – sea level rises, coral bleaching, etc – so close at hand?

“It’s like a terminal disease for us,” he said. “It’s in our people’s minds all the time, but they also have to get on with their day-to-day lives. They also have to worry about reliable power, fresh water and sewage.”

A blog written for the Guardian’s Travel website about a new price-comparison website that compares the environmental impact of flights as well as their price…

Price comparison sites now play such a major role in our travel choices that it’s hard to think of a time without them. They’ve helped to pull the rug out from under travel agents who used to be our only conduit to finding the best prices. It feels as if we’ve booted them out of their swivel chairs and taken their place at the bookings terminal instead.

It’s largely an illusion, of course. How do we really know that all the prices have been accurately and fairly compared? After all, the travel sector is notorious for its price volatility, where the cost of a flight or hotel can change by the minute. And how many sites are being compared when you make a search? Have any of them paid to be among the sites being compared? Have any been left out, as a result? The next logical leap will be a comparison site comparing price comparison sites. Don’t tell me, there’s one already out there.

You’re more than welcome to use this blog to list your favourite price comparison sites, or list your gripes, but that isn’t the purpose of this blog. Rather, it is to discuss the arrival of a new price comparison site – one that, yes, compares prices, but also compares the carbon footprint of the various airlines it lists when you make a search.

The Carbon Friendly Flight Finder is collaborative effort by The Carbon Consultancy, Global Travel Market and and when I had a little play with it this morning it seemed to do pretty much what it says on the label. Type in a search for a return flight from, say, London Heathrow to New York JFK leaving this Saturday and returning a week later and it tells you that Opodo is currently offering the best deal with an Air France flight priced at £270. (The most expensive option is an Aeroflot flight offered by Travelocity priced at £2,807. The mind boggles.)

However, it also tells you that the Air France flight has a “carbon ranking” of “3”, compared to, say, KLM (“7) or Virgin Atlantic (“1”), with “1” being the best and “10” the worst. The Carbon Consultancy says that the carbon rankings for each airline are not based on the actual emissions of that particular flight, but on an assessment based on a wide range of factors. You can read its a detailed explanation. But I’ll save you the hassle: all it is saying that the carbon ranking it gives to each airline is little more than an educated guestimate.

I welcome seeing this additional information published right next to the price, but in reality we’re talking about very small differences in fuel efficiencies between the airlines, especially when comparing them over long-haul routes. The variables that make the real difference over the same distance are whether the flight is direct or has to first go via a hub (which the Carbon Friendly Flight Finder does factor in), or whether, if it’s short haul, you are travelling on a jet or a turboprop plane.

Rather than being given a rather vague ranking out of 10, I would prefer to see the actual listings of grams of CO2 per passenger kilometre travelled. And, further still, see this compared against, where they exist, other travel options such as trains, ferries, and coaches. (See Fred Pearce’s recent Greenwash column for a discussion about making just such comparisons.) I would also like to see the airline’s carbon rankings accurately reflect the fact that the carbon dioxide they emit is done at high altitude which has a significantly greater impact on the climate – the so-called radiative forcing multiplier – than emissions down on the ground. It is only by making such comparisons that an accurate picture can be painted of the various “carbon rankings” of the choices that lay before us.

There’s a danger of losing perspective of the fact that by far the best option is to reduce the amount of flying you do, wherever possible, rather than fretting about whether or not flying with British Airways is a little bit better in terms of emissions than, say, flying with Virgin Atlantic. Flying London to New York with either of them will still result in well over a tonne of carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere per passenger. And if you want one extra comparison, that’s broadly equal to one month’s worth of emissions resulting from the (non-flying) lifestyle of an average Briton.

As is the case with carbon offsetting (which The Carbon Consultancy promotes), I fear that such initiatives only ever really end up providing a comfort blanket for those who don’t wish to engage with the hard-edged environmental realities that now circle over our holidaying habits. Do they really offer anything more than the dangerous illusion of “job done”?

A blog written for the Guardian’s Comment is Free website about the protests at Stansted Airport this morning…

When I first heard about protesters breaching the perimeter fence at Stansted airport on the radio this morning, my first reaction, given Plane Stupid’s previous actions, was to wonder why the campaign group hadn’t done something on this scale earlier in the year.

Protests of this nature had been effectively cleared for take-off in September by jurors at Maidstone Crown Court, who acquitted the so-called Kingsnorth Six of causing £30,000 worth of criminal damage while protesting at the Kingsnorth coal-fired power station in Kent in October 2007. The protestors successfully argued, for the first time in a British court, that their actions had a lawful excuse because they were trying to protect against climate change-induced damage on a far greater scale. I’m sure Plane Stupid’s defence team are already pouring over the details of the trial.

The protest has caused, on average, 90 minutes’ worth of delays at the airport. In other words, not too dissimilar to any normal day at a British airport. Yet I heard people on the radio this morning putting the protestors on a par with murderous Islamist terrorists. And the protestors are accused of losing perspective? I can understand – as do the protestors themselves – that people find their actions annoying and disruptive, but that’s the point.

Non-violent direct action rubs against the grain of popular opinion in order to get itself noticed amid a sea of self-interest, apathy and day-to-day distractions. It is born out of desperation and frustration that the normal democratic processes have failed, are flawed, or are corrupted by vested interests, despite clear evidence that the current path is dangerous or unjust. How many people now see Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela and Emmeline Pankhurst as criminals rather than heroes, despite the fact they all broke the laws of their day to protest for what we now see as worthy causes?

As the protestors said this morning, they see their actions as a last resort having already spent years trying to use the lawful democratic processes. For the past 20 or so years, an ever-broader consensus of scientists has warned us of the self-induced dangers of climate change. Yet, following our political leaders, we continue to sleepwalk towards an avoidable (although the clock appears to be fast running down) destiny. Aviation has, justifiably in my view, been singled out by the protestors as a sector that is still far from internalising its environmental costs and that continues to increases its emissions with little hope of reversal. Stopping airports from expanding any further is a sure way to throttle any extra supply.

It is ironic that today, the new energy and climate change minister, Ed Miliband, who sits within a government that has been staunchly pro-aviation, should be calling for “popular mobilisation” and “countervailing forces” to help drive climate change further up the global political agenda.

“When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilisation,” he said. “Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.”

Well, he got his wish this morning.

A post written for the Guardian’s Ethical Living blog about a journey I recently made…

Amid all this talk circling overhead about the proposed expansion of Heathrow, I recently undertook the type of journey that environmental campaigners say is one of the key reasons why there is a call by some to expand capacity – lengthy trips within the UK.

Why on earth should we be encouraging even more flights between, say, Heathrow and Edinburgh (or Manchester, for that matter) when those passengers could be going by train in much the same time, when you make a fair city centre-to-city centre comparison?

I live in Cornwall and a big family bash was taking place at Shotley Bridge in County Durham. In order to attend, my family was going to have to travel about 430 miles (693km) each way – roughly the same distance as traveling from London to Lyon. We were, therefore, confronted with something of a conundrum: should we go by road, plane or train? (I’ve done some lengthy coach trips in my time, but I really didn’t relish that option.)

There were the usual financial and environmental cost implications to consider, but we had a wildcard to throw into the mix – our young children.

In environmental terms, the answer was easy. Get the train. But when we did the costings, getting the train would be almost twice as expensive as driving – nearly £200 (including the cost of a family rail card and tube journey across London) compared to about £100 spent at a garage forecourt.

To our great surprise, though, the cost of flying (Newquay-Newcastle, or Exeter to Newcastle) would have worked out at about £400 all in for the days we needed to travel, even if we had booked a couple of months in advance. We had assumed it would have at least beaten the cost of going by train.

To be honest, I was relieved that it turned out to be so expensive as I didn’t fancy facing pressure from my family to grab a domestic flight to avoid the hassle of taking the kids on either a long train or long car journey. It was also refreshing for once to see that the most environmentally unfriendly option was also the most expensive, which, to be honest, is the only way you are going to convince most people to take fewer flights.

So in the end it came down to a toss up between whether it would mean spending eight-odd hours on the train with the kids (somewhat counterintuitively, it was quicker to go via a change in London than on a direct, cross country train via Birmingham), or broadly the same time – if the going was good – in the car. After much debate, the prospect of allowing our young kids the chance to stretch their legs (but hopefully not their lungs) on the train won the day.

The trip itself proved to be fairly incident free and we made it there and back without delay. We even managed to somehow avoid the wrath of our fellow passengers after finding out we had been placed in the so-called quiet carriage for one of the legs. (Oh, how we longed, though, for one of those enclosed children’s play areas you find on some trains in Germany, France and other parent friendly nations.)

But there was no denying that by avoiding the plane on this particular route we had to make a considerable time sacrifice. After all, going by plane would have taken us about four hours door-to-door when you factor in getting to and from airports and the check-in time.

Some within the anti-airport expansion debate say that domestic flights cannot be justified and should be banned altogether. Personally, I think that the extremities of the British Isles are always going to put forward a fair case that they need to be served by a local airport (ironically, Newquay Airport is currently closed for three weeks due to an air traffic control cock-up meaning that my family would have been stuffed if we had flown out from there), but I do agree that it is insane that it is still often far cheaper to go by plane than by train for many of the workhorse domestic routes within Britain.

In this instance, though, I was more than happy to have allowed the train to take the strain. And being a First Great Western regular, I was gobsmacked to find free Wifi in all carriages on the National Express East Coast route between London King’s Cross and Newcastle. I’m sure there are horror stories to be told of travelling this route, but it was like a hallowed vision of what a train service could be like in the hopefully not-too-distant future.

During a recent trip to Turin to attend the Salone del Gusto/Terra Madre festival and Cinemambiente environmental film festival, I took some time out at the Caffe Mulassano to record an audio slideshow for Guardian Travel. Seeking gastronomic tips, I spoke to Corby Kummer, senior editor at Atlantic Monthly and author of The Pleasures of Slow Food, and Daniella Vitta, one of Turin’s genial ambassadors.

A blog written for Comment is Free about the UK government’s decision to give the go-ahead to Stansted airport’s expansion plans…

Invest in spade manufacturers. That’s my hot tip for those of you looking for a punt during these uncertain times. For this is surely a wonderful time to be burying bad news.

There was certainly something of the Jo Moore’s about today’s announcement by Geoff Hoon, the fresh-off-the-carousel transport secretary, that Stansted airport is to be given the go-ahead to expand its passenger capacity. Would he have dared do so at any other time given that it was just 72 hours ago that the government’s committee on climate change, chaired by Lord Turner (some week he’s having what with his other job at the FSA), said that the UK’s carbon reduction target for 2050 should be raised from 60% to 80% and include shipping and aviation?

Airport expansion seems to make about as much sense this week as looking for good savings deals in Iceland. Even if you put climate change concerns aside – a near-impossible ask when it comes to airports, I admit – then airport expansion still seems to be a dud. With airlines going out of business by the week due to high fuel costs, and consumers pulling up the drawbridge on their spending (which, presumably, will curtail the urge to pop to Europe by plane for the weekend), the growth predictions made by the aviation industry – and lapped up by the present government – now seem to be more than a little wide of the mark. The current economic situation is actually presenting the government with the perfect opportunity to gracefully retreat from its unpopular and unwise airport expansion plans – and yet it pushes on like Douglas Haig at the Somme. The plans for Stansted and Heathrow’s third runway should really be dead in the water by now – for example, how and with whom is BAA now going to raise the funds for these projects? – but still they refuse to whither. I wonder if Ed Miliband, as the new secretary of state for climate change and energy, was even involved in the decision. To be honest, it tells us much about the government’s true convictions on climate change whether he was or he wasn’t involved.

My bet is that the third runway at Heathrow really must now be a lost cause for its ever-dwindling number of supporters. The tide has now almost fully turned against it – the politics, the economics, the environment. Stansted’s expansion is very different because it doesn’t require new asphalt to be laid, just an increase in the number of flights using its current runway. But never content, its owner BAA still pushes on with its predict-and-provide pleas for a second runway. If any good is to come out of the turbulence of recent weeks it will be that such plans will now have to make an urgent forced landing.

Here’s my ‘no’ response to the question above published in the Observer’s Escape section

When you jump off that chair lift for the first time every season, fill your lungs with frigid air and glance at that mountain vista ahead, it’s hard not to feel a connection with nature. Immersing yourself in this environment is arguably one of skiing’s key attractions.

But strip away the glamour and the thrills and you are left with a list of environmental woes. And that’s not taking into account the fact that the busiest slope in any ski region is the line of aircraft descending to the airport. You cannot talk about skiing without mentioning climate change. Skiers, of all people, should be aware of the rapid changes occurring on the world’s mountain ranges. Glaciers are in speedy retreat and snow lines are rising quickly.

Skiers are not directly causing these problems, other than by being members of the human race. But the skiing industry is frantically, forlornly, trying to stave off the deleterious effects of climate change with a series of measures that will only exacerbate the problem in the long run. The arrival of snow cannons at virtually every major resort over the past decade is the most worrying of trends. Working through the night as the skiers’ attention turns to the delights of schnapps and fondue, these spray particles of water mixed with nucleating agents into the freezing air to create a blanket of artificial snow. A lack of the real stuff has forced the industry to rely on these machines, but their environmental impact is considerable.

Mountain Wilderness, a French conservation group that described skiing as “the cancer of the Alps”, says that 4,000 cubic metres of water are needed to cover one hectare of piste for a season – whereas a hectare of corn needs only 1,700. Across the Alps, it is estimated that artificial snow consumes the same amount of water each year as 1.5 million people. Incredibly, in some regions, tap water is used, but elsewhere river water is extracted from the valleys below and pumped back up the mountain.

This causes two problems. First, there is the energy expenditure: Mountain Wilderness says that it requires about 25,000 kilowatt-hours, costing about €150,000, to cover just one hectare of piste with snow for a season (that’s largely why the cost of ski passes has risen so much in recent years). Second, dumping river water at high altitude disrupts biodiversity because it introduces nutrients in the water into an area where they wouldn’t otherwise be.

Using artificial snow also means that the pistes now take up to a month longer than normal to melt in the summer, preventing many plant species lying dormant underneath from germinating and flowering, leading to huge muddy scars in the summer meadows where the pistes once lay. Just take a look on Google Earth at satellite images of, say, the Chamonix valley or Aspen during the summer months.

“Artificial snow is not the root of all evil, but it is very close,” says Sergio Savoia, the programme director of WWF Switzerland. “One of the biggest problems is psychological: snow cannons give tourists the idea that it is business as usual. But we don’t actually have much snow.”

Some low-lying resorts are experiencing winter nights that are too warm even to use snow cannons. There are reports that helicopters are being used to ferry snow to threadbare pistes in order to keep these resorts in business. In 2002, Italian police set up a task force to investigate the “theft” of snow from glaciers by the truck load in order to serve nearby resorts. The alternative is to abandon such resorts and chase the snow, by building new lifts and hotels further up the mountain. This is already being seen in some places.

But, despite the promises of resort owners, how environmentally sensitive can a concrete mixer really be when taken high up into a wilderness area and put to work?

Here’s interesting confirmation in the New Scientist of something I talk about at length in The Final Call – how high-rise resorts such as Benidorm in Spain could actually be considered among the ‘greener’ destinations in the world due to their relatively efficient use of resources such as water and power.

An article for the Guardian’s Travel section about my stay at Trelowarren in Cornwall…

We’re in a corner of Cornwall that has some of the most spectacular beaches, local food and heritage in the county, but all my young children want to do is look at the “big machine that eats trees”, otherwise known as the woodchip boiler. I wish I’d never mentioned it.

The Trelowarren estate on the Lizard peninsula has been welcoming guests since, well, no one’s exactly sure — the residing family, the Vyvyans, have been there for 600 years and their 1,000-acre property is mentioned in the Domesday Book — but in the past few years the estate has become synonymous with a distinctly modern phenomenon, the green holiday. And its seven-tonne state-of-the-art boiler, one of the largest of its type in the country, has a big part to play.

In a familiar tale of son-and-heir-forced-to-think-of-creative-ways-to-save-crumbling-estate, Sir Ferrers Vyvyan, Trelowarren’s 13th baronet, decided to shun the well-trodden route of opening up the house to the cream-tea brigade, or hosting a festival in the grounds, and instead decided to position the estate at the vanguard of luxury eco-friendly self-catering holidays.

“Carbon neutral” is a much abused term, but Trelowarren is now tantalisingly close — a “couple of years”, says Sir Ferrers — to being able to claim that label. At least half of the estate is forested, and Sir Ferrers realised early on in his 30-year, £12m programme to overhaul its fortunes that by reintroducing the art of coppicing he could use the renewable energy source growing all around him to provide heating and hot water to the self-catering cottages scattered across the grounds. In fact, so much heat now flows from the boiler that it also warms the estate’s large outdoor swimming pool. “Guests love using the pool at Christmas,” he says.

The long-term plan is to have 31 self-catering units on the estate, almost half of which are already up and running. This is no building site, though, as the development is being carried out in stages. Nine of the original estate cottages have been renovated — the first opened in 2000 — but are conventionally heated using, for example, oil-fired ranges. So the eco-purists will probably prefer to stay in one of the eight newly built two storey, two- to-four-bedroom houses, which include a raft of environmental innovations, such as twin-frame timber panelling to increase thermal efficiency, non-toxic paints, marmoleum-lined bathrooms, walls insulated with recycled newspaper, pressure-tested windows, low-energy lighting and rainwater harvesting.

Inside, the eco-properties are dressed in the Conran aesthetic — a jolting contrast to the homely (mercifully, chintz-free) charm of the original estate cottages. There’s no scrimping on mod cons, though, for when the fickle Cornish weather makes an afternoon curled up in front of a wood stove and a DVD seem the best option. There are no complementary bikes, but they can be hired from a local firm on request.

That is a minor grumble, though. Trelowarren is about as green as it gets for this sort of holiday in the UK. What is refreshing about it is the way the owners have resisted the usual short cuts, such as carbon off setting, energy purchased via “green tariff s” and so on . And you can literally buy into their vision, because Trelowarren claims to be the world’s first eco timeshare. If you have a spare £4,500, you can invest in, say one week’s use of a cottage every February for 30 years — though prices rise sharply for summer use.

But you don’t go on holiday to talk about U-values, kilowatt hours and price-earnings ratios. Sniffing out the best food available is usually on most people’s minds, and just a short stroll from the new eco-buildings is the estate’s stable block, which houses the New Yard Restaurant. A destination in itself, the restaurant holds two AA rosettes and claims that 90% of the ingredients in its dishes are sourced within a 20-mile radius. We particularly liked the Cornish spring lamb and line-caught sea bass, but the kitchen will also put together a picnic for those wanting to head off and explore the grounds, which offer an undulating jigsaw of lush pastures stocked with rare breed cattle and woodland carpeted — when we visited — with wild garlic. Head north and the estate reaches down towards the tidal inlets of the Helford river.

You could spend two weeks here without moving far from Trelowarren, but one trip worth taking is to Kynance Cove, one of Cornwall’s most spectacular beaches, which lies just to the west of Lizard Point, Britain’s most southerly tip. In keeping with th e green vibe, the beach cafe is accessible only by foot and the power needed to chill the drinks and toast the sandwiches is produced by photovoltaic solar panels on the roof.

A trip to the Lizard isn’t complete these days without visiting Tregellast Barton Farm near St Keverne, where the famous Roskilly’s organic ice cream is produced. If you fantasise about gorging yourself silly on ice cream or fudge made with clotted cream, then this is the place for you. We atoned for our calorific crimes with a walk along the shingle that takes you along the inlet from the beach beneath St-Anthony-in-Meneage, before reoffending at an evening barbecue at the Shipwrights Arms in Helford.

But, despite all the other distractions, talk on the way home was still of that boiler. “How many trees can it eat in a whole day?”

· 01326 222105, From £450 (two-bed cottage, low season) to £2,650 (four-bed, high season) for a week. You can book a biodiesel taxi to pick you up from Truro station, 45 mins drive away, through

A news report written for the Guardian’s Saturday edition about the increasing number of Britons choosing to holiday in the UK this summer…

Dig out the bucket and spade. Dust down the knotted hanky. The British are falling back in love with holidaying at home.

Travel operators are reporting a marked shift in holiday habits among Britons this summer with a sharp rise in people choosing to take a break in the UK instead of going abroad. The strength of the euro, uncertainties about the economy, airport frustrations and rising fuel costs have all combined to increase the appeal of, say, a weekend in Weymouth or a fortnight in the Fens.

The change of holiday habits is not just thrifty, but also environmentally friendly, says Anna Jones, climate campaigner at Greenpeace UK: “People and businesses are realising that it makes economic and environmental sense to fly less. Holidaying closer to home is better for British tourism and better for the climate. It’s time the government recognised this too and started investing in improving the rail network instead of climate-wrecking runways.”

Self-catering holidays are proving particularly popular with Britons eager to maintain a tight control on their expenditure. Hoseasons, the UK’s largest self-catering specialist which “takes one million people on holiday a year”, said it has now almost sold out of accommodation for July and August. Bookings in Cumbria and the Lakes are up 34% on last year, it said, with Norfolk and Suffolk showing similar growth. said that its domestic holiday bookings are up 16% year-on-year. Meanwhile, Advantage, which represents 700 of the UK’s independent travel agents, reported a 5% fall in bookings year-on-year in overseas package holidays.

“We are hearing from the industry that bookings are up in British resorts,” said Sian Brenchley, spokesperson for VisitBritain, which rates tourism as Britain’s fifth largest industry, worth £85bn a year. “Holidaymakers are taking a second look at holidaying at home – and are being pleasantly surprised by what they find.”

The strength of the euro against sterling – yesterday one pound was worth €1.25, a 15% fall on this time last year – has left many UK travellers returning from eurozone countries this year reporting a steep rise in costs. For the first time in decades, staying in Britain is being perceived by many Britons as a cheaper option than going to, say, France, Italy or Spain.

Increases in airline fuel surcharges and disillusionment with airports are also playing their part, say industry analysts. The delays at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 in March are fresh in the memory and the problems have continued into the summer: a Heathrow baggage handlers union told the Commons transport select committee on Wednesday that 930 bags a day are still missing their onward flights from Terminal 5.

Despite last summer’s washout – and an inclement start to this summer – weather is not as an important a factor to Britons as it once was, according to Richard Carrick, chief executive of Hoseasons: “Our appetite for sun has waned, it seems. Thirty years ago it was of primary importance for tourists, but now it ranks beneath factors such as food, range of activities, and quality of accommodation. The age of the ‘fly and flop’ holiday is over.”

Carrick adds that another important trend is that people are taking more, yet shorter, trips: “The average Briton has 25 days of holiday entitlement a year – this hasn’t changed for over a decade – but because they travel more often they don’t want to travel so far, especially if they are driving with today’s fuel costs. We are seeing that 2-3 hours driving time is the typical limit for Britons holidaying domestically this year. It means bookings are not quite as strong in far-flung places such as Cornwall and Scotland.”

Haven Holidays, which operates 35 holiday parks across the UK said its sales are up 7% on this period last year, but that it has had to innovate to attract these extra customers. For example, it is offering £20 petrol vouchers with its holidays this year to “ease the pain” of driving costs. In contrast to the holiday camps of yesteryear, its holiday parks now offer facilities ranging from health spas to Starbucks cafes.

A blog written for the Guardian’s Comment is Free website about whether tourists should be blocked from visiting Antarctica…

There has been a rush of “see it before it’s gone” tourism in recent years. The advent of “climate tourism“, and its close relative “extinction tourism“, has been reflected in (and encouraged by, no doubt) travel journalism.

In March, the Miami Herald ran a travel feature with the headline: Global warming: 10 destinations to see before it’s too late. Last year, the Observer ran a feature in its travel section headlined 10 wonders of the vanishing world which celebrated threatened destinations such as Mount Kilimanjaro and the Maldives – and then told you how to get to them (which attracted an angry reaction from some readers).

It is a worrying, if understandable, trend. I, too, would love to be able to see some of these places with my own eyes. Who wouldn’t? On the top of my list would be Antarctica. I grew up, like so many others, devouring the exploits of Amundsen, Shackleton, and Scott and it would surely be an extraordinary personal experience to be able to go there.

To learn that these destinations may, if not quite “vanish” (I think there’s a few years of Antarctica left yet), then at least be degraded or altered by climate change in coming decades, is all the more a spur to book the journey for some.

I can well understand the human desire driving this type of tourism – just as I can understand why we want to climb to the top of mountains or reach out into space. But, if it means speeding a destination’s decline by us being there as tourists, then we shouldn’t be given free rein to do so.

Antarctica is one place where I believe that this applies more than anywhere else. In fact, I believe it is the one place in the world where a “no tourism” rule should now be implemented.

It is far too environmentally fragile a place for the heavy feet of tourists to tread. (It is also unique in not having an indigenous population to argue it needs the tourism dollars.) That’s not just my view – that’s the view of many scientists based there, including ones from the British Antarctic Survey. The UN environment programme also expressed concern about tourism’s impact in Antarctica in its 2007 report called Global Outlook for Ice and Snow:

“The projected retreat of sea ice is likely to lead to an expansion of tourism activities, as more sites will become accessible by sea and the season will lengthen. This, in turn, is likely to increase the risk tourism presents to the marine environment, as well as to terrestrial ecosystems, as over 80% of the tourists land during their journeys. This will also present new challenges in maintaining the unique characteristics Antarctica presents for scientific monitoring and research on processes of global and regional importance … In order to address these challenges, a comprehensive regime on tourism should be developed, complementary to the Madrid protocol on environmental protection to the Antarctic treaty, which provides a regulatory framework for human activities in Antarctica.”

The Antarctic Treaty came into force on 23 June 1961 (and, a little worryingly, comes up for “renewal” on its 50th birthday in three years time) with the somewhat vague promise of ensuring the ice continent became a “natural reserve devoted to peace and science”. For decades, it has been host to just a few scientists (although the Americans have pushed the boundaries way too far with their grossly oversized settlement at McMurdo Station and at the South Pole, with its new all-weather, coast-to-pole road).

But in recent years, it has blossomed as a destination for cruise ships, buoyed by the relentless demand for “adventure tourism”. During the 2007-2008 season, almost 35,000 tourists were estimated to have stepped ashore from their cruise ships in Antarctica, according to the International Association of Antarctic Tour Operators (a coalition of tour operators established in 1991 that follow “best practice self-regulation” when it comes to minimising their environmental impact).

By comparison, just 6,704 tourists went ashore in 1990. This probably isn’t the time to discuss the inadequacies of the Antarctic treaty, especially given the looming fight over seabed mining rights, but one positive thing that could come of the 2011 renewal discussions would, at the very least, be the introduction of exceptionally strict rules about how tourists are to interact with Antarctica, if they are allowed to at all.

At present, tourism isn’t even mentioned in the treaty’s wording. Earlier this year, Simon Jenkins wrote, with a sense of boyish glee, about how he is now the proud keeper of a walnut-sized pebble that he picked up when visiting Antarctica. He went on to argue that the continent shouldn’t be the exclusive preserve of scientists. I strongly disagree: I favour the precautionary principle in that we prove we can tread carefully enough as tourists elsewhere first – something we most certainly have not achieved yet – before we bespoil this pristine place.

Surely, we can show that as a species we don’t always have to “have” something just because we know it’s there, and as a result end up mishandling it. Surely, we can move away from the centuries-old attitude that mankind has dominion over nature. (And, no, I don’t agree with the view, so often argued, that you have to see these things with your own eyes to truly understand why they need protecting; I’ve never seen the Brazilian rainforest, but I understand why it shouldn’t be chopped down.)

I fear, though, that this is a forlorn hope: this week, Gap Adventures, the company that saw its cruise ship, the MS Explorer, sink off Antarctica last November after striking an unidentified object, announced that it had secured a bigger ship to recommence expeditions from January 2009. The momentum of tourism is, at times, mightier than that of a glacier.

A Short Cut written for G2 about the first scheduled flight of the day to land at Heathrow airport…

Imagine a party in which the antics of 400 revellers had the capacity to disturb the sleep of two million people. The police would shut it down faster than you can say “Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003”, which is what gives the authorities the legal power to deal with noise at night.

Now imagine a Boeing 747-400 filled with 400 people audibly passing over the heads of, according to Department of Transport figures, an estimated two million people at around 5am each morning. Welcome to BA Flight 26, the first scheduled flight of the day to land at Heathrow airport.

It needs no introduction, however, to the residents who live directly under the flight path. BA Flight 26, which departs Hong Kong 13 hours earlier, is the 50-plus decibel early alarm call none of the residents ever requested. (The World Health Organisation says that more than 30 decibels of sleep disturbance has a “critical health effect”.) As all flight-path insomniacs will tell you, the first plane of the day joins the dawn chorus of birds, car alarms, cat fights and the early-to-work whistling neighbour as the most potent disturbers of sleep. That first approach of whining jet engines can signal the last hope of further decent sleep before the slide out of bed towards the nearest cup of coffee.

What makes it worse for Londoners is the knowledge that BA Flight 26 is just the first of an average 15 further flights legally allowed to land at Heathrow before 6am – the moment when night becomes day in the world of airport noise regulation. The only relief comes when the prevailing westerly winds shift and aircraft are forced to approach Heathrow from the west instead. But what is a relief to those in, say, Barnes becomes a curse for those in, say, Maidenhead. Tomorrow, Richmond, Wandsworth, and Windsor and Maidenhead borough councils will take their bid to stop night flights to the high court, claiming that some of these flights – which include BA Flight 26 – break the government’s own noise rules.

However, the cursed of London might just want to consider their brethren living under the Charles De Gaulle flight path in Paris. Due to the large volume of freight flights landing at the airport, up to 150 flights are allowed every night. Later this year, sleep-disturbed Parisians will travel to Strasbourg to argue that, under Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, their right to respect “for private and family life” is being violated by night flights. Many Londoners will no doubt raise their double-strength lattes in support.

I was recently interviewed by Tom Heap for an episode of Radio 4’s environmental strand Costing the Earth which focused on the environmental impact of tourism. It was first broadcast on Thursday, May 15, but is now available on the BBC’s iPlayer here. The show also spawned a feature on the BBC News website’s Magazine.

A blog written for the Guardian’s Comment Is Free website about the rising cost of jet fuel and its impact on the aviation industry…

For all the talk about how home heating and petrol pump prices are fast rising, there seems to be remarkably little comment – given our love affair with flying – about how runaway oil prices are hurting the airline industry. Within the past few weeks, a number of airlines have gone out of business – this weekend saw Eos, the business class-only airline operating routes between Stansted and the US, join the growing list. Eos follows its direct competitor Maxjet, as well as Oasis (which claimed it was the first long-haul, low-cost carrier when it began flying Hong Kong-London in late 2006 for as little as £75 each way), and four US-based carriers: ATA Airlines, Aloha, Skybus and Champion Air.

Not all of these failures can be attributed to rising jet fuel prices alone – the economic slowdown, credit crunch, and weak dollar are taking their toll, too – but it’s the sky-high operating costs that have tipped most of them over the edge. It is now surely just a question of when, not if, one or more of the well-known carriers hits serious turbulence by going bust, or turning to consolidations and mergers for protection, as typified by the recent Northwest/Delta lovefest as well as persistent talk – despite a denial from its president this weekend – of Continental hooking up with United and/or US Airways.

You only need to look at the price of jet fuel today compared to this time last year to see what’s causing the squeeze. According to the International Air Transport Association’s fuel price monitor, the price has increased 78.2% in the past 12 months. (That’s a global average: in Europe prices have increased by 84%, making it the world’s most costly region to buy jet fuel.) In the past month alone, it has risen 8.8%. IATA estimates that this rise has added $61bn to the industry’s total fuel bill for 2008 compared to 2007. And today we have the president of Opec talking about oil prices hitting $200 a barrel. Something clearly has to give, especially for an industry that famously runs on such tight margins.

What makes this all the more remarkable is that most airlines hedge their fuel costs, meaning that they are buying the fuel they need sometimes up to 18 months ahead of when they will actually need to consume it. Therefore, after “enjoying” a period in which they were partly shielded from the price spikes, many airlines are only now having to absorb the truly vertiginous fuel cost rises seen over the past year.

As with all fuel-dependent industries, the airlines now have to operate on an almost week-by-week basis. Just step back to the end of March and consider how low-cost carrier investors were spooked by the news of easyJet’s profits warning. What unsettled them most was the thought that easyJet was basing its projections on jet fuel being priced at $1,000 a tonne – a horrifying thought for investors. Back in February, both easyJet and Ryanair were using the price of $840 a tonne in their fiscal projections. However, today the price stands at $1,145 a tonne (about $3.46 a gallon), and with pressures such as the Grangemouth strike, continued unrest in Nigeria and increasing demand from Asia, the rises show no sign of relenting.

So what does this mean for passengers? Well, we may come to remember summer 2008 as the last time we got to fly abroad for our holidays “on the cheap”. The decade-long era of our holiday flight costing as little as one-night’s stay in a hotel, or less, is surely at an end. EasyJet, for example, says that it has hedged 40% of its summer 2008 fuel requirements at $750 a tonne, which means it still has a few months to go before it gets truly clobbered by the price rises. A month ago it predicted that if fuel reached $1,000 a tonne it would equate to adding $45m to its overall fuel bill for the second half of 2008. Given that the price has already far surpassed this symbolic mark, then it is clear that the costs are soon going to have to passed on to passengers in the form of hefty ticket price increases, or further spurious check-in and luggage charges.

Quite how high the cost of flying is likely to go no one seems too keen to say, but when you consider that an Airbus A320 – a favourite of the low-cost carriers – consumes about six gallons of jet fuel per seat per hour, you can begin to see how current price rises are going to impact on how much we currently pay to fly.

Many airlines, despite the threat to their competitiveness, have already bumped up their fuel surcharges – United doubled its own surcharge a fortnight ago – but now we are seeing some airlines admitting that they are about to imminently raise their overall ticket prices. Just today, for example, Qantas said it was going to add 3% to its prices from the beginning of May to cover the cost of fuel. As has already been seen with home heating and driving costs, it is presumably worth bracing yourself for double-digit rises in the coming months. After that, who knows?

This is all good news for environmentalists, of course. I, like many others, have long argued that the cost of flying needs to reflect its environmental cost and by doing so curb runaway demand, but I readily admit I never imagined that oil prices would bring about the price rises required in such short order – certainly years ahead of any likely emissions-trading costs, or “green” taxes. (Just imagine how much jet fuel would cost today if it was, like other fuel, actually subject to fuel duty and VAT, but that’s another debate altogether.) The free marketeers will be thrilled: the market, rather than the regulators, got to decide first.

The big question now is will market conditions get to decide the fate of the proposed third runway at Heathrow, too?

A blog written for the Guardian’s Comment Is Free website about Benidorm’s eco claims…

Think of one of the world’s most derided tourist destinations. Now try to think of one of the world’s most environmentally sustainable tourist destinations.

It is unlikely that you came up with the same name for each, but the mayor of Benidorm was arguing this week that critics should stop mocking his city – which welcomes four million visitors a year, twice as many as Kenya – and realise that it is, in fact, a model for how popular destinations should manage precious resources such as fresh water and energy.

Ask someone who has never been to Benidorm what they think of it and they will typically speak in negative tones. Known as the “Manhattan of Spain” because of its long, thin strip of skyscraper hotels, Benidorm is also famous for its burger bars, British fish and chip shops, kiss-me-quick souvenir stands, karaoke nights and beer bellies on parade. The current ITV1 comedy about British tourists there reinforces most of these stereotypes for those who haven’t yet visited – and, to be honest, are unlikely ever to do so.

But Manuel Pérez Fenoll, the city’s mayor, is right to point out that the perception people have of his city is clouding their view about its environmental credentials. Most people assume that Benidorm is a horror show of over-development and environmental degradation. There is a lot of truth in this, of course, and Pérez is stretching his point slightly, but when set against the golf course-villa-pool-golf course-villa-pool template of tourism development that now runs for hundreds of miles along Spain’s costas, Benidorm is almost beacon of environmental best practice. (My heart sank this week when I read that Cuba now sees golf courses to be the best way to attract tourists.)

So how can the city be green? The reason is simple: Benidorm sustains the four million visitors it receives each year within just a few square miles, whereas when you spread the same number of visitors across a much wider area their per capita demands for water and energy increases massively. A tourist in Benidorm is using far fewer resources compared to, say, a tourist staying in a nearby villa that hugs a golf course and boasts a kidney-shaped pool.

When I visited Benidorm two years ago to investigate this subject for my book The Final Call, I sat in his plush office in city hall and interviewed Pérez. At the time he was – somewhat paradoxically, compared to his comments this week – boasting how the city had just built new golf courses and a water park to attract even more visitors, but he also stressed how well the city’s water system worked from an environmental perspective and how “the Israelis” had recently visited to see if they could learn anything from it. (In contrast to the golf course-peppered landscape that surrounds Benidorm, evaporation of its water, which is partly collected in rainwater reservoirs nearby, is greatly minimised by always keeping it underground in pipes; waste water is also recycled to replenish all the city’s public green spaces.)

A lot has changed politically in Spain since then with a fast-growing backlash against the country’s ill-conceived tourism developments. Part of the concern is the way they demand far too much of the nation’s imperilled and fast-diminishing fresh water supplies. Pérez’s views reflect this and his point shouldn’t be lost just because of many people’s prejudice about Benidorm and other destinations like it.

With the UN’s World Tourism Organisation predicting that the number of international tourists will have reached 1.6 billion a year by 2020 compared to 840 million in 2006, we are going to have to recognise that concentrating tourism in hubs such as Benidorm is one of the most environmentally effective ways of managing this increase.

But, crucially, these hubs must be well planned and managed. If not, they will make the same mistakes that Benidorm, Cancun, and others have made before them, ending up as bywords for over-development and, as a result, losing their appeal.

Benidorm’s first mayor – who died last week – said to me during my visit that one of his biggest regrets was seeing how his original plans for developing Benidorm in the 1950s were irresponsibly torn up and expanded during the 1970s and 1980s. If those that followed him had maintained a sense of foresight and discipline, he said, then Benidorm would not have developed the negative reputation it has today. Indeed, there are many lessons to be learned from Benidorm’s experience – both positive and negative – by those planning the tourism hubs of tomorrow.

A blog written for the Guardian’s Travel website about the rise of the ‘long-haul minibreak’…

When did spending more than 14 hours in a plane over a long weekend suddenly become enjoyable, rather than a punishment that befalls only the hardiest of business travellers?

What have I missed? Are airport queues no more? Has in-flight dining suddenly become a gastronomic delight? Does everyone now get a fully reclining seat and limitless leg room? Have they found a cure for deep vein thrombosis? Is there a pill to pop to nullify jet lag?

I only ask because it seems that we have now entered an era where “long-haul minibreaks” are becoming the norm for a well-heeled section of British society. According to a recent survey by Halifax, last year 3.7 million Britons chose to fly to destinations seven hours away or more in the pursuit of leisure. The travel insurer predicts that this will increase by a third this year meaning that 4.9 million tourists from the UK will be jetting off to places such as Hong Kong, New York, Vancouver, Dubai, Las Vegas and Rio de Janeiro on so-called “breakneck breaks”.

“Better airline quality, the lure of winter sun, favourable exchange rates, and cheaper long-haul flights have created a boom in demand for long-haul mini-breaks, with millions of us enduring long flights for a weekend break on the other side of the globe,” said Paul Birkhead, a senior manager at Halifax.

Other factors are also promising to make this new form of entertainment more attractive, such as the forthcoming “open skies” agreement for routes across the Atlantic which is predicted to make such routes even cheaper. Throw in the proposed third runway at Heathrow and second runway at Stanstead and those living in the south-east – which the survey identifies as where many of the breakneck breakers reside – and millions more could soon be spending the weekend sipping mojitos in Manhattan rather than mowing the lawn in Marlow.

It is all madness, of course. This is exactly why environmentalists – and increasingly a wide coalition of other groups – are fighting so hard to rein in the growth in aviation. The popular myth that they are trying to “stop the poor from flying” is a convenient smokescreen. As Civil Aviation Authority data shows (see chapter three of this report), there is actually very little evidence, if any, that the era of low-cost carriers has suddenly “democratised the skies” for one and all, as the airlines and their lobbyists would have you believe. Anyway, the fight to stop airport expansion isn’t about stopping those that fly once a year to the Med for their annual two-week holiday, it’s about curbing the still relatively small section of society that is now addicted to “binge flying” – those that fly three or more times a year for leisure. These are the people who are driving much of the growth in aviation in the UK – and its resultant emissions, which currently account for about 13% of the country’s overall greenhouse gas burden.

And the addiction analogy is useful in this context because the more we allow such trips to flourish, the more “hooked” the travellers become. That’s exactly why so many people are fighting airport expansion – it’s an attempt to cut off the supply at its source.

But beyond the compelling environmental arguments that should dissuade those that promote and consume long-haul minibreaks, there lies, I feel, another interesting phenomenon: the ever-increasing degree of importance most of us attach to where and how we travel for leisure when it comes to sending out the right signals about our social standing. Why would anyone travel to, say, Hong Kong for the weekend other than to show off in the office or among friends the next week that they had done so? The reality is that once you’d accounted for the flying time, you would have had time to do little more than have a couple of nice meals, spend a few hours shopping and catch some sleep in an identikit hotel room. Would you really have even “seen” Hong Kong in that short time? Was it really worth causing such a disproportionately high environmental impact over such a short period for such a superficial example of travel-by-numbers?

Friends of the Earth was quite right to label such journeys as “indulgent”, given the fact that few in the UK can still claim ignorance when it comes to knowing about aviation’s environmental legacy.

We will always have a “sod you” section of society that does what it wants regardless of the consequences to others, but my own view is that they should have to pay a high price for their current freedom to wilfully pollute. Yet more tinkering by the Chancellor with aviation taxation is expected today, but another far more important influence is soon set to collide with and disrupt the growth in aviation – rising oil prices. Many airlines now buy – or hedge – their fuel more than a year in advance to try to outrun price pressures. With some predicting that oil could reach $200 a barrel by the end of the year, the era of cheap flights could soon be at an end, with or without the campaigning efforts of environmentalists.

A blog written for the Guardian’s Environment website about Virgin’s biofuel test flight…

I doubt many of us had probably heard of babassu oil before a Virgin airline test flight, partly powered by biofuels, made the short hop from London to Amsterdam yesterday.

The oil, which is produced from a palm native to the Maranhão Babaçu forests in the eastern Amazon, is typically used as a cooking oil, but is also used to make medicines and soap.

Well, if test partners Virgin, Boeing and General Electric get their way, this versatile oil will be able to add another string to its bow: propelling humans around the globe at 900km an hour.
Along with coconut oil, babassu oil was blended – 20/80 – with traditional aviation-grade kerosene and fed into just one of the Virgin test plane’s engines. The other engines were powered normally and we can assume the test went well because there were no big splashes reported in the North Sea.

If this test flight had taken place about five years ago, I’m sure it would have received near universal praise. Back then, biofuels were being touted as the great “green” alternative to fossil fuels. But in recent years, the more we have examined biofuels, the more problems have appeared – particularly in relation to their claim to being “carbon neutral”.

Branson, a master of PR, doesn’t seem to have timed this latest high-profile stunt very well. Just last week, the UK government was putting the brakes on biofuels by ordering a review of their environmental and economic damage. In recent weeks, Science has published several damning papers about the effectiveness of using biofuels to reduce emissions. And just hours after the test flight landed safely, the Financial Times was reporting that the UN’s World Food Programme is considering rationing food aid to the world’s most needy because of spiralling food costs which are, in no small part, being driven up by the demand for biofuels – which, at present, are largely made from food crops.

Feeding a starving child, or powering a flight to New York? It should never be a contest, but, following Virgin’s test flight, it now is. The very thing that the critics of biofuels feared is now becoming a reality. (I wonder if the crew of Virgin Galactic‘s sub-orbital spacecraft will be pointing out the biofuel plantations below to space tourists when the first flights take off in the next couple of years?)

One of the reasons environmentalists and others are crying foul over this test flight is because Virgin originally stated that it wouldn’t be using a “first-generation feedstock” (most of which are produced from food crops such as corn and palm oil) to produce its biofuel. In the build-up to the test flight, Virgin had been suggesting that the feedstock would be derived from algae instead. But as many biofuel producers know all too well, it’s much cheaper and more convenient to produce biofuels from food crops.

Rather than wait until an algae-derived biofuel was ready – which would probably be something to herald – Virgin felt the need to jump the gun so it could still claim to be the first airline in the world to trial a biofuel. As a result, it will now justly get the flack for using a feedstock that should be feeding people instead.

The hunt will go on, though, for a “drop-in” replacement for kerosene – one that doesn’t require a huge and costly change in refuelling infrastructure. If the aviation industry is to keep growing at its current pace, and yet still manage to reduce its emissions burden, it is clearly going to need to keep trialling new fuels. And the key hurdle is finding one that can meet kerosene’s “high energy density” – in other words, its oomph. A hard task, indeed.

But even if someone did manage to produce, say, an algae-derived aviation fuel, we are still a long way from it ever being used to power commercial flights for the simple reason that the aviation industry, by necessity, is a highly risk-averse industry. No one wants to risk the lives of 300 people travelling at 30,000ft. Therefore, it would take at least a decade before any such fuel was passed as safe by regulators. It’s for this reason that most industry commentators see kerosene remaining the dominant aviation fuel for at least the next two to three decades – a period for which a continued fast growth in aviation emissions is predicted. So will its arrival be too little, too late?

Personally, I welcome research into new aviation fuels, but worry greatly that the current focus means that we’ll end up with an alternative fuel that ultimately presents more problems than solutions. The one solution that just doesn’t seem to be able to fly at present is simply reducing the number of planes we send up into the atmosphere. But that would require a political fuel no one has yet seen the likes of.