Steve Coogan is not the first person you think of when considering the climate crisis. And yet, earlier this week, I found myself recalling one of his greatest sitcom scenes as I read through a study on how to cut carbon emissions in some of the world’s largest cities.
You probably know it – the six minutes of excruciating comic perfection where Coogan’s greatest creation, the failing chat-show host Alan Partridge, meets a BBC commissioning editor to pitch suggestions for new TV programmes. The lunch goes badly, and growing ever more desperate, Partridge starts throwing increasingly random ideas across the table. “Youth Hostelling with Chris Eubank”, he suggests. “Inner City Sumo! Monkey Tennis?”.
There is nothing about budget travel with retired middleweights in “The Future of Urban Consumption in a 1.5°C World” – a report from the environmental group C40 Cities that has found itself in the spotlight. But then, C40 Cities is a serious organisation, comprising 96 major urban centres, on six continents. It meets regularly to discuss how we can lessen our collective carbon footprint, and its dispatch contains some genuinely sensible ideas – reducing the amount of clothing we buy, the amount of electricity we use, the amount of meat we eat.
However, its suggestions on aviation are Full Partridge in their lack of connection to reality – seemingly muttered at random, in a bid to get something, anything on paper. The citizens of the C40 Cities (and with London, New York, Sydney, Madrid and Rome part of the club, as well as Mumbai, Dubai and Rio, that means a good many of us), it says, should rein in their use of aircraft to one return flight, of no more than 1,500km (932 miles) in total distance, every three years. Better still, they should do so by the year 2030.
I’ll repeat that. One return flight. Every three years. No more than 932 miles. By 2030.
The report explains that “if all residents of C40 cities fly less, and airlines increase the proportion of sustainable aviation fuel they use… a cumulative 43 per cent emissions saving can be achieved.” It adds that, for this to be the case, almost half of the 96 C40 Cities’ residents would need (significantly) to reduce their number of trips to the airport.
To put that into context, the C40 cities account for about one 12th of the global head-count. So that’s about 664 million people; roughly twice the population of the USA.
There is at least a recognition that this might be wildly implausible; the report has the suggestion marked as an “Ambitious Target”. Which is certainly one way of putting it. But don’t worry. Take a deep breath, sit down, and please thank your lucky stars, because there is a more pragmatic “Progressive Target” as well. One return flight every two years.
As Tony Hayers puts it, with barely hidden disbelief – when Partridge dives deep into his notes and resurfaces clutching “Arm Wrestling with Chas and Dave” – “I don’t think so.”
Let’s drill down into what one flight per person every three years would mean. That’s one summer holiday every 36 months – an exile from the Mediterranean shore almost twice as long as the interruption brought about by Covid. That’s a lot of pressure on Cornwall.
Mind you, if you are going to stick to the 932-mile limit, you won’t be seeing the Spanish Costas or the Aegean Sea again. London to Malaga is a 2,500-mile round-trip, London to Athens and back amounts to more than 3,450 miles. Bad luck if you live in Glasgow, because that mileage allowance will get you a circular trip to Bournemouth. And even if you are based in the south of England, the best you can hope for, assuming a flight from Heathrow, is to hop to Frankfurt and home again, which leaves about 12 miles in change.
Now, I like Frankfurt, but its general schtick – significant financial hub with plenty of nice restaurants – isn’t enough to make it one of my top five favourite German cities. And even if it were, I’m not sure I would choose it for one of my 3.3 fly-and-flops per decade.
Not that it would remain a significant financial hub, were this aviation starvation-diet to come to pass. Business travel would cease – because who on earth would spend their precious triennial flight token to sit in a conference centre overlooking the River Main?
One flight per person every three years would cut the air industry’s emissions by way more than 43 per cent. It would slash them to practically nothing. Because there would be no air industry. The airlines – many of which barely survived the pandemic – would be unable to remain profitable with such meagre passenger numbers. The foreign holiday would consequently disappear, without the planes and customers to fill those summer packages, leading to vast unemployment from Cascais to Cadiz to Crete.
Admittedly, there would be no tourists to be saved from fires on Rhodes, although, should the flames really rage, displaced islanders would at least be able to shelter in the hotels that once housed the island’s financial lifeblood. As for connections between the C40 Cities in time for the next conference, forget it. Either hire a sail-boat, or walk. That two-year Covid habit of squishing all life into a Zoom window is going to feel like a 10-minute interlude.
Of course, the C40 group is not presenting this as fully formed policy. And it certainly isn’t mooting flight rationing as some sort of enforced, authoritarian system, where being caught catching a second aeroplane 18 months after the first sends you straight to prison. Do not pass go, do not pass the franchise coffee shop and the duty-free section; surrender your passport to the unsmiling man with the smart uniform and the dog with the big teeth.
Even so, such pie-in-the-sky thinking (or, to be more accurate, “no-pie-in-the-sky thinking”. Because there would be nothing in the sky, except for the little fluffy birds, the occasional over-ambitious moth, and whatever Elon Musk is doing this week) does nobody any favours. Not least environmental experts themselves. Every time an idea as unworkable as this is put forward, the public either rolls its eyes, changes the channel, and watches Love Island – or else assumes that any discussion on climate change is a matter for zealots and oddballs rather than the globe’s most crucial ongoing conversation.
The air industry does have a carbon problem. But, as the cause of 2.5 per cent of global emissions, it is also a small piece of a much bigger jigsaw. Greener fuels, better-designed planes, and yes, perhaps, some of us flying less, are some of the solutions to the pollution it produces. But people are going to continue to fly – because the global economy is partially built on it, and because holidays give people a break from the norm. Effectively wishing out of existence something that makes the world go round (and brings pleasure to millions) is about as viable a brainwave as, well, live footage of gibbons playing doubles.