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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 FlySmart.org 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 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.

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, trelowarren.co.uk. 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 biotravel.co.uk.

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.

A blog written for the Guardian’s Travel website about NatureAir’s bold new claims…

I didn’t know it at the time, but I have flown with the “world’s first and only zero emissions airline”. But don’t get too excited: I’m not talking about a new paradigm in jet propulsion, or the revival of the airship. This airline still uses fossil fuels just like every other.

In the summer of 2006, while conducting interviews for my book The Final Call: In Search of the True Cost of Our Holidays, I took a short flight from Punta Islita on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast to the capital San Jose. I joined a dozen or so other passengers aboard one of NatureAir‘s de Havilland Twin Otters, thereby avoiding the best part of a day’s travel on Costa Rica’s notoriously bad roads. The flight was memorable for me because it carried us over some stunning rainforests and mangroves at a low enough altitude that you could appreciate some of the detail below.

What I didn’t know at the time – most other airlines would be ramming such marketing gold dust down your throat at any given opportunity – was that the airline supports a range of local projects in Costa Rica aimed at reducing emissions. The most notable of which is a scheme whereby 200 hectares of rainforest on the Osa Peninsula have been protected from loggers. This, the airline calculates, compensates for roughly 20,000 tons of carbon dioxide that it has emitted into the atmosphere since 2004.

I’m highly sceptical about carbon offset schemes – and NatureAir’s actions are no different really from those of any firm offering offsetting – principally because they often make decidedly dubious claims, they don’t encourage us to address our polluting ways but only disguise them, they lack independent verification, and rarely can they demonstrate “additionality” (that these actions wouldn’t have been undertaken without the offset scheme). But I am in favour of remedial environment projects that are located close to the problem. It makes sense for a Costa Rican airline seeking to atone for its carbon sins to fund and nurture environmental projects in its own backyard – even if I don’t buy the claim that the airline’s emissions can be said to be “zero” as a result. Nonetheless, the projects still appear to be worthwhile in their own right.

When I watch the tourism industry racing to paint itself green, I do wonder why more within the industry don’t try to play the “local” card, as you see happening so much within the food industry. I’m sure it would lead to a lot less cynicism about the true motivations and usefulness of offsetting. Rather than pay a sum to a faceless offset scheme, as most airlines now offer their customers the chance to do, I’m sure passengers would much rather know that this money was being spent on projects at the destination, thereby helping to improve the often strained relationship between the visitor and the visited. Perhaps a visit to such projects could be part of the trip?

The fundamental point is that we like to know where our money is being spent – and that it is being spent well. For example, there are very few fans of Advanced Passenger Duty (APD), the departure tax levied on the UK’s outbound passengers, outside of the Treasury, even though it claims to be an environmentally motivated tax. But if the £2bn revenue it raises each year was ring-fenced for certifiable and visible environmental projects, then it would instantly achieve much more support from travellers.

A fast-growing number of us appreciate that we must start paying the true environmental cost of our travel, but we are only ever likely to support the necessary green taxes that would curb the current runaway growth in emissions if we know and can see they are directly funding projects that also reduce or mitigate these rising emissions.

In Costa Rica, NatureAir is able to achieve a lot of “buy in” in relation to its offsetting initiative with its customers because passengers can look down and see the very thing that is worth saving below them. Just how you achieve that on, say, a mundane transatlantic flight is certainly a challenge, but the fundamental point remains: travellers must see that the tax hikes that will inevitably affect air travel in the coming years are truly benefiting the environment they have been introduced to protect.

A blog written for the Guardian’s Travel website on the day the A380 took off on its first commercial flight…

So the big bird has finally flown. The first commercial flight of the new A380 took off from Singapore this morning headed for Sydney, with a belly full of eager-eyed passengers, some donating up to $10,000 to charity for their place in aviation history. There has been so much fanfare accompanying this new superjumbo from Airbus that, to be honest, it’s a relief that she has at last pulled away from the departure gate with her first paying passengers. If this really was a paradigm shift in flying then it might warrant all this attention, but in reality it illustrates to me just how little we’ve travelled in terms of aviation innovation since 1970 when the Boeing 747 “Jumbo Jet” first took to the air. It hardly compares to the “leap forward” made by Concorde’s first commercial flight just a few years later. I’m sure there will be many who marvel at this new plane’s engineering prowess, but the thing that really counts today is can this plane get as many people from A to B using as little fuel as possible? Much has been made about the A380’s green credentials and most of it, sadly, has been vastly overblown. The plane’s basic principle is sound – if something is going to take to the air it might as well have as many people on board as possible to maximise the fuel used. But on closer inspection the Airbus claims lose a lot of their lustre. Airbus’s website says that the plane will burn 2.9 litres of fuel per passenger for every 100km travelled, or, put another way, it will emit 75 grammes of carbon dioxide per passenger kilometre. This, says Airbus, is a better fuel efficiency than a hybrid car. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But how did it arrive at that figure? Well, I couldn’t find an explanation on the website, and I called the UK office but no one returned my call. So I’m reliant on the National Center for Public Policy Research in the US, who did manage to extract the details from Airbus. Airbus told them that the measurements were based on the A380 carrying 555 passengers at a cruising speed of 900km – but with no luggage or cargo on board. Singapore Airlines has said that its A380s will be set up in the traditional three-class configuration, but will be carrying “less than 480 passengers”. This is because it wants to give passengers more space – including those paying big bucks to travel in its much-heralded “12 ultra-luxurious suites”. (The A380 can, in theory, carry 853 passengers, but it is highly unlikely that any airline will utilise this, except perhaps on some short-range internal routes in, say, China and Japan.) Given that most of these passengers will have hand luggage and a suitcase or two, you can safely assume that the quoted fuel efficiency is going to be less impressive than it first appears. And don’t forget that it is rare for a passenger flight to take off without cramming commercial cargo on board too – or that carrying capacity among the so-called legacy carriers who are ordering up these planes (not in the quantity that Airbus had hoped for) is lucky to ever break through the 80% barrier. This could seem to be unnecessary nitpicking, but the far bigger concern for me is that Airbus predicts these planes will be in service for 40-50 years. With other airlines also investing heavily in Boeing’s rival Dreamliner, which has its own much-puffed “eco” claims, we can safely assume that these two planes will be the principal workhorses of the skies for the next several decades. These are the planes that will serve the huge growth that is predicted for the aviation industry over this period – and is what has triggered the huge concern about aviation’s fast-increasing environmental impact. This goes a long way to quashing any realistic talk of some huge techno fix laying just around the corner – blended-wing designs, hydrogen fuel cells etc – that would mean we would be able fly without a thought for the atmosphere that our plane carves through. Are airlines which have just spent billions of dollars on new planes really going to be in the market for experimental planes in the near future? Also, look just how long it has taken for the A380 to come to market. Aviation innovation takes decades to literally get off the ground – and so does fuel design – for the simple reason that regulators don’t like to take risks when hundreds of people are being flown at 30,000ft. Therefore, all this talk of biofuels for planes is fanciful in the short- to medium-term – and just look at all the hubbub that biofuels are already causing when it comes to verifying their true environmental credentials. The plain truth is that while these tweaks in efficiency are obviously welcome don’t believe the hype that they are anything more than just tweaks. That flight from London-Sydney, or wherever, will still come at a considerable carbon cost, whichever plane you are travelling in. Somehow getting fewer people into the skies is the key, not beckoning people onboard with inflated eco claims.

To comment, click through to the Guardian’s website here …

This Saturday (October 13) I’m taking part in a debate at Tourism Concern‘s AGM entitled, ‘Is it the Final Call for Tourism?’ It is taking place inside the Graduate Centre at the Tower Building, London Metropolitan University. Yes, I know it clashes with some important football match or other, but it promises to be an interesting and lively afternoon. The debate ‘kicks off’ at 2.45pm. Here’s how Travelmole is billing it (although I would add that I have never said that “tourism will indeed ruin the world!”, but we can certainly debate that notion on Saturday)…

Leo Hickman, author of the Final Call meets with Frances Tuke of ABTA to discuss whether it really is the final call for tourism – Tourism Concern, Saturday 13 October at London Metropolitan University.
Leo Hickman, journalist and author of the recent controversial book “The Final Call”, ABTA’s Press Officer, Frances Tuke, Lamin Bojan from Gambia Tourism Concern and Peter DeBrine, Deputy Director of the International Tourism Partnership will be discussing whether it really is the final call for tourism. The discussion is hosted by Tourism Concern and will be chaired by journalist and broadcaster Alison Rice
The discussion, which is bound to be lively, will focus on the impact of travel, and whether, as Leo Hickman claims in his book, tourism will indeed ruin the world!
Focusing on the excesses of tourism and its unsustainable growth, Hickman covers Dubai and its ultimate homage to consumerism, Thailand and sex tourism, climate change, China’s phenomenal tourism growth, the receding glaciers in Switzerland, countries that greenwash their tourism as a marketing tool, developers that pay no heed to the rights of their workforce and the fact that there are no checks and balances and no moves towards any regulation.
Tourism Concern would welcome the presence of those working in the tourism industry to contribute to the discussion. The audience will be encouraged to have its say. There has already been some strong debate between Hickman and Jeremy Skidmore in Travel Mole. Saturday, 13th October is the opportunity for others to join in.

I’m taking part in an on-going Q&A on the forum at Planeta.com. Please post any questions you have and I will try my best to answer them…

Now the pilots are having their say about the environmental impact of flying. “Pilots have long felt aggrieved that their industry is being used as a scapegoat for global warming”, says a new report commissioned by the British Air Line Pilots’ Association. “They have been particularly annoyed about two serious misconceptions – that air transport is the biggest polluter (which it is not) and that the industry is highly subsidised (again,which it is not).”

I agree on the first point, of course, but the second point is a little disingenuous to say the very least, but we’ll let that go as there’s a much better point the report makes that’s worth zooming in on.

“Modest reductions in road transport, electricity usage from power stations and improvements in the home would allow for aviation emissions…There are other measures which could and should be taken to reduce CO2 emissions and allow for continued air travel.”

So we’re back once again to the old “we’re a more important part of the economy than anyone else and should be allowed unrestricted growth regardless of the negative impacts” chestnut. It would be interesting to see just this question put to the vote, but until that time we should at least make the cost of flying represent its cost to the environment. Personally, I don’t think there should ever be any escaping the “polluter pays” principle. Even if you as self-important as the aviation industry.

A rant has been posted on Travelmole against travellers concerned about the environmental impact of their trips. The author, Jeremy Skidmore, has form for this kind of contrarian outburst – and he can say whatever he likes, of course – but it is a little worrying that a widely read industry website such as Travelmole should choose to post such comment pieces without at least balancing things up a little with alternative viewpoints. It says a lot to me about just how far the industry has yet got to go before “getting” this whole subject, let alone starting to tackle it. Here’s a little taster…

If, like me, you will not give a second thought about the impact on the environment of your holiday, you are not alone. Despite all the hype to the contrary, a new survey has shown that two thirds of Britons do not care about their carbon footprint. Indeed, people aspire to long haul holidays to relax from their stressed lives and worry most about their accommodation not living up to scratch or that their luggage will go missing. I recycle and use energy saving light bulbs (and would advise everyone to do so), but I’m certainly not going to stop flying to all parts of the world on business and pleasure. Most people feel the same way, partly because we’re selfish and partly because we are unconvinced about the impact of aviation on the environment, or indeed ‘climate change’ in general…

A chat I recently had with Frank Bures via email about The Final Call has just been published on World Hum.

According to a survey commissioned by Travel Weekly, “less than one in ten UK consumers would be willing to change their travel plans to greener alternatives”.

TNS Travel & Tourism, which carried out the research, found that just two per cent of respondents were ‘very likely’ to change their travel plans and a further seven per cent would be ‘quite likely’ to do so. The survey also revealed a very small take up in carbon offsetting, with just four per cent of respondents stating they had made a payment to offset their travel in the last 12 months. TNS, which polled over 1,000 UK consumers, called on the travel industry to do more to educate the public in a bid to counter consumer apathy and enable them to make better informed decisions.

Today I answered reader questions live online on Guardian Unlimited. Some interesting questions came up – and I gave my best shot at answering them. You can see my responses here…

I suspected this might happen. Those Virgin Train ads just seem that little bit too provocative for one of the airlines not to take the bait and challenge the green claims being made by reporting them to the Advertising Standards Authority.

I’m pleased that it looks like we might also get to the bottom of just how much Network Rail relies on nuclear power – something that is often over looked.