Independent from reason or responsibility

The Independent led yesterday with a report on Greenpeace's attempts to prevent BA opening a service from Gatwick to Newquay. Their strap-line in the print version read:

"The battle of Newquay. British Airways faces a showdown with the green lobby over a new daily service from London to Cornwall. The fight may determine whether the booming aviation industry can be brought back to earth."

It is clear where The Independent's sympathies lie. They include an op-ed piece from Emily Armistead of Greenpeace, entitled "Fastest way to damage the earth". Yup, those pesky flights to Newquay will be the ruin of us all.

Just one small problem. Can you see what it is?

Article on preventing flights to Newqay, surrounded by adverts from Lufthansa for flights to Kolkata, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, and a promotional on Jamaica

Flights to Kolkata, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, anyone? How about a trip to Jamaica? So much better than flying to Newquay.

That is from their online edition. But what's this in their print edition, taking up most of p.8?

bmibaby advert for 50% off selected flights50% off cheap flights to various destinations offered by bmibaby. OK - so long as you're not going to Newquay, that won't be a problem.

How about this from on p.19: advert for cheap flights to CanadaCheap flights to Canada. That's what we need to really get the atmosphere cooking.

Or this from Easyjet on p.22:

easyjet adverts "Over 10 million prices CUT", "40% cheaper than BA", etc.Can't you take the train to Edinburgh and Glasgow, every bit as easily (probably more so) as to Newquay? The services are a darn sight more regular. And will short hops to Amsterdam, Barcelona, Nice, Prague, Toulouse and Venice be that much better for the environment than to Newquay?

Or this from on p.25: advert for short breaks to Tallinn, Venice and Hong Kong In case you can't make it out, that's short breaks to Tallinn, Venice or Hong Kong being advertised. Now just remind me, how much carbon will I emit flying to and from Hong Kong for a three-day visit? Would it be more or less than the 0.1 tonnes of carbon you calculate for the flight to Newquay?

Or this from bmibaby again, on page.... Well, it takes up the whole page, so there's no page number, but it's there:

Another, full-page advert from bmibaby, this time for their business-class seats

And what's this tucked away inside the paper? A travel supplement? Where should we go if we don't go to Newquay then, Mr Independent travel-adviser?

  • Turkey,via Dalaman or Antalya airports
  • Tanzania, via Dar es Salaam airport
  • Biarritz, Newquay's greatest European rival for the surf-holiday crowd, and accessible by Eurostar/SNCF, of which not a mention, although The Independent do helpfully point out that the destination is "15 minutes by taxi from Biarritz airport". So that'll be a recommendation to fly there, will it?
  • Bangkok, via, er, Bangkok airport
  • Cumbria (token non-flying option?)
  • Swan Hellenic cruises (not heard about the problem with emissions from shipping, then?)
  • Seville, the "Destination of the week", via Seville airport
  • Stationary caravanning in France (Saint Cerise in the Ardèche and Belrepayre in the Pyrenees), the USA (Shady Dell, Arizona), South Africa (Witmoskloof Oxwagon Camp, Eastern Cape) and the UK (La Rosa, N.Yorks. Moors). No suggestion how you get there, but apart from Yorkshire, anyone need two guesses what the answer will be?
  • Madonna di Campiglio, via Bergamo airport, although they do suggest that you can reduce your "impact on the environment" by buying an "offset" from Equiclimate or Pure, because "the money is used to reduce the output of carbon dioxide". Have The Independent not noticed the stories about how suspect many of the schemes to sell "non-carbon" are? But whatever their merit, is there any reason why offsetting is more valid way of negating your environmental impact when travelling to Italy than to Cornwall?
  • New York State, for a short break, via JFK or Newark airports, plus car-hire for touring round the state.

But perhaps I am being unfair, because, in a supplement to the supplement, The Independent are at least promoting "Great Rail Journeys". So is this The Independent's great idea to keep us out of the skies? Not exactly. You can keep your feet on the ground on the Trans-Siberian or Trans-Mongolian expresses, but you are going to have to fly to Moscow and back from Vladivostok. So rather than fly somewhere and then stay in the local area, you can really rack up the carbon by flying somewhere and then spending most of your time in motorised travel to somewhere else. Likewise for the Swiss railways - do use the Fly Rail Baggage option to make your flight to Zurich or Geneva more comfortable. Or how about flying to Vancouver or Calgary, so you can enjoy the train-ride from one to the other?

Besides the articles, the travel supplement is, of course, saturated with adverts for package holidays, cheap flights and destinations in Turkey, Italy, France, and various other countries, very few of which would be feasible without a flight. Meanwhile, back in the main part of the paper, most of the adverts that aren't for flights are for gee-whizz electrical gizmos, which do just as much to chew up carbon and spit it out as do domestic flights. But they're alright, because The Independent can't take a moral stand on them without alienating all of their readers, rather than just those in the South West. But let's hope at least the South-Westerners have enough sense not to buy another copy of this paper until its current editorial team, and their obsession with picking environmental losers, are sent packing.

Their defence, presumably, would be that there is no option but to fly to most places in the world, whereas to Newquay there are other options. Well, there is another option to flying, wherever you want to go. It's not to go there. If flying to Hong Kong for the weekend is damaging, it doesn't diminish the damage to point out that there was no other way of getting there. You didn't have to go. And as for the other options for travelling to Cornwall, anyone who has tried to drive down knows what a nightmare it is. Those traffic jams are good for neither the environment nor the efficient use of our time. The Independent's own calculations show that there is not much between the carbon emissions from driving (0.08 tonnes) and flying (0.1 tonnes), assuming the traffic cooperates and one is driving a reasonably efficient car. And the train is fine, so long as you don't want to travel on a Sunday (when there are no practical services), or take a surfboard. If the train is competitive on price and convenience, people will take it. It doesn't need Greenpeace and The Independent to take away the other options.

I am not suggesting that The Independent shouldn't have travel supplements and advertise cheap travel. I am suggesting that, if it recognises this reality, it shouldn't campaign against one particular, relatively benign, option. I am suggesting that, whatever the cost of carbon is, it is the same whether you are flying to Newquay or New York. And the same goes for the cost of our time. It is an entirely personal decision how and where to travel. So long as carbon is priced equally for all destinations and modes of travel, we should end up with the most efficient balance. If there seems to be too much flying, then carbon is simply priced too low. If people carry on flying when carbon is priced equally and fairly across all sources of emissions, it tells us that people would rather continue to enjoy the benefits of flying and save carbon other ways. It is not The Independent's or Greenpeace's or the Government's or anyone else's job to decide for us what our preferences should be.


They got the fuel burn wrong for the aircraft trip as well. With 140 seats then it is a 737-400 or similar. The 734 burns abour 2.5 tonnes per hour in ideal circumstances. A short hop is less than ideal, but still unlikely to be over 3 tonnes in an hour flight.

OK, so this is "a one-hour flight", but in a straight line it is only 187 nm. Not being at work I don't have the likely air routes available, but I doubt it takes more than 35 minutes airborne in reality (I am being conservative; I think 30 minutes is more likely). So take 1800 kg for the flight, 260 kg for the taxi (standard assumption for pre-flight planning for a 737 400), round up to 2100 kg.

If the aircraft is full (not an unknown situation), 140 people that is 15 kg of fuel per person. This would account for about 47 kg, or 0.047 tones of carbon dioxide per person (assuming complete combustion of pure hydrocarbons). It has to be assumed that flights average less than 50% load factor to get the figure the Indie gives; that would be very low, even for the "old" airline model, where short hops used to cost more than £200. It would be unsustainable with BA's current pricing models.

So what is the assumption for the train? Have they been just as dishonest, and assumed it is full every time? Unlike the airccraft that never happens for the whole journey. However I am a pilot, not a train driver so I couldn't caculate.

Having just travelled from Reading to Llandrindod Wells and back by train (hence the delay in replying), I can say that occupancy levels on the rural lines were around 20%, and on the First Great-Western mainline service were as busy as I have seen them (being an occasional visitor to Swansea) at around 40% on the way out and maybe 70% on the way back. My experience of Virgin is that they manage much higher occupancy levels. I reckon it would be fair to say that trains could achieve a high occupancy level, but normally don't outside rush-hour services to our main cities.

Somewhere I have figures for the fuel consumption of a typical inter-city service, which I'll try to dig out for comparison with your excellent figures. I reckon it will support your scepticism about the accuracy of the comparison. They didn't, for instance, consider that a car might have more than one occupant. Wouldn't that be convenient, if they assumed a train would be full but a plane would be half-full and a car would be carrying only the driver?