Young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg crossed the Atlantic on a zero-emissions sailboat to attend the UN Climate Summit and then begin a tour around the Americas before attending the UNFCCC COP25 meeting in Chile.
She and a sailing crew encountered rough seas on the way to New York in hurricane season. Anyone who is willing to put themselves through such conditions for what they believe in is to be admired for their principled approach.
Greta obviously appreciates the importance of gatherings such as the United Nations for bringing together people in common cause. The ability to meet face-to-face, to look another human in the eyes, and learn from one another is unable to be matched through screens and conference calls, as practical and useful as they are. There is nothing that replaces travel to help people connect.
Despite the yacht, the crossing was anything but luxurious voyage: cramped conditions and significant swells that tested even the hardiest of sailors. However, her choice to travel this way does bring with it a luxury most of us do not possess: time.
Aside from the two weeks to get to New York, there was also the travel from her home in Sweden to the UK, the long journey from New York to Santiago and then presumably travel back to Stockholm somehow. All-told at least three months of travel which may be possible when you are a 16-year old taking a year off school. But most of us do not have the luxury to take so long to travel to meetings or see friends or family. We have jobs, we have responsibilities, we have kids to take to soccer and grandparents that need to be taken care of.
Air travel has helped change the way we see and experience the world. Families now live all over the globe and are connected by rapid and affordable flight. The voyage across the Atlantic that was common a century ago has been replaced with a swift, safe, and reliable air service. The same human drive that helped create aviation also brought with it other innovations: improved healthcare, more affordable food, computers, and easily accessible transport. Lives today are incredibly different and richer than they were before we had access to these services and opportunities. But it is now clear we need to change these systems to provide the same quality of life but without the negative planetary implications.
The air transport industry has been working to make air travel much more sustainable for decades now. A passenger’s flight taken today produces half the CO2 that the same flight would have in 1990. The latest generation of aircraft have CO2 emissions per passenger-kilometer that rival that of compact and even hybrid cars. And our colleagues across the sector are working hard to do even better in the future.
Despite the growth in connectivity, we aim to halve our net CO2 emissions by 2050 through an energy transition away from fossil fuels and a dogged determination to roll-out cutting-edge and ever-increasing efficiency through new technology and more innovative ways to fly our aircraft. We want to ensure people can fly in the future, but to do so as sustainably as possible.
This process cannot happen overnight. An energy transition takes time, as does the deployment of new technology.
And we need to be careful to make choices that are well-informed. Every activity we undertake has some kind of footprint. European politicians and activists will suggest a ban of all short-haul flying and replacing it with rail travel, but few (if any) have done the analysis on how much concrete, steel, renewable energy, land, and government funding it will take to build so much rail infrastructure. Just ask the UK Government how the High Speed 2 rail project is going. Even emailing and watching YouTube produces CO2 emissions: actually, more CO2 is generated by the servers and cables of the internet than global aviation.
This is not to suggest we stop traveling and stop emailing. We should not. Human connection and learning from other cultures are too important for us all to give up. There is already too much intolerance in the world for us to retreat into nationalistic bubbles. But we do need to work to make future of flight even more sustainable, and I am convinced we have the right minds and the right determination to do it. In the meantime, passengers can choose to offset their flights by supporting low-carbon action worldwide, and airlines are already starting to use sustainable aviation fuels which cut CO2 emissions by up to 80% — including out of Stockholm Airport.
Greta has said that she does not yet know how she will return to Europe. Last week she took part in the UN summit on September 23rd, then she continued to Canada and then Mexico, and in December, she’ll make her way to Chile for the UN climate conference and visit neighboring South American countries.
We genuinely wish Greta all the best. The adventure of travel should be experienced by all of us!
Michael Gill is Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group