Thursday 5 December 2019

Sarah Carey: 'Greens risk making travel a playground of the wealthy'

Hot topic: Hundreds of thousands of children have skipped school to take part in climate change protests. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Hot topic: Hundreds of thousands of children have skipped school to take part in climate change protests. Photo: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Sarah Carey

Are humans born good and made bad or born bad and made good? Or are we blank slates that become products of experience and education? That's usually a question for theologians and psychiatrists. But as we struggle in the face of climate change to alter behaviour, understanding the human condition is central to the development of green policies.

If you believe we're naturally good, then simply explain to people why they must change their lifestyles by showing them pictures of turtles killed by plastic straws.

If you're more resigned to the inherently sinful nature of humanity, you'll believe only regulation and taxes will force people into making inconvenient changes to the unsustainable life to which we've become so comfortably accustomed.

Personally, I think people need rules and taxes to change. Once the beatings are over, then they see how wonderful the world can be and the regime can be relaxed. From seat belts to smoking bans to plastic bags, we look back at the carnage on the roads, smoking in the cinema and country ditches decorated with plastic and wonder how we lived like that.

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The arrival of a convoy of tractors in Dublin this week lifted the veil from many who suddenly saw that a car-free city centre could be a beautiful thing. At some point, city managers will have to ban cars in the city centre. As long as I can park around the corner from my destination, I will. Someone has to make it stop.

Regulations are easy to some extent because they affect everyone equally. If I can't drive through a town centre, no one can. But taxes are quite different because they affect some more than others.

The prospect of aviation carbon taxes was raised this week and is a good illustration of the problem.

Transport is one of the most significant sources of carbon. Globally, aviation accounts for just over 2pc of transport-related emissions, though within Europe that rises to 15pc and in Ireland it's around 6pc. The EU predicts they'll rise dramatically - up to 700pc in the next 30 years.

Instinctively, some presume well-off frequent flyers are deserving victims of aviation taxes. Since the poor are too poor to fly, we don't need to worry about them. But are all flyers rich?

I asked the Dublin Airport Authority what it knew about its customers' demographic profile and the answer was interesting.

The average Dublin Airport customer takes six return trips a year. As you might expect, the majority are classified as C1 - the professional class. A quarter are classified as AB - the top social class. So it's easy to identify the well-off frequent flyers there. Ironically, it's this group who are also more likely to vote Green.

But another quarter of Irish flyers are C2 or skilled workers; while 7pc are in the DE social class, or unskilled workers or the unemployed. Together, this means a third of Dublin Airport customers are the so-called "working class".

Some of us, sadly, are old enough to remember when flying was too expensive for most. Ordinary people just didn't fly.

Cheap flights are fantastic and I for one adore the health benefits of getting some sun and the joy of foreign cities. Seeing the world is a great thing and it wouldn't be fair if people with less money got priced out of the opportunity to travel.

Aviation is just one sector facing the problem climate change presents to poorer people. For example, there's been a row recently about grants for house improvements so they use less energy, but you need to have enough money to do up your house up in the first place to get a grant.

I'd like solar panels, but it's hard to part with thousands of euro to get them installed, when getting by from month to month is my immediate priority.

An electric vehicle would be fabulous but there's no prospect of replacing our current diesel car for several years.

The fact is, some people can afford to go green and some can't, even though none of us can afford not to.

The challenge for policymakers, especially the Green Party, is how to change behaviour so we don't end up in a world where comfortable people continue to have comfortable lives, and the poor stay at home in the rain.

A government can justify grants for home improvements or exemptions for water charges. But you can't subsidise or regulate your way out of the flight problem by giving grants for holidays or limiting people to a certain number of flights per year.

Since I believe in humans as sinners, relying on the goodness of some to stop flying won't work either.

Many hope hard choices will be avoided by developments in technology. Aerospace manufacturers are spending over $15bn (€13.6bn) per year developing more fuel-efficient aircraft.

A flight taken today produces around half the CO2 the same flight would have in 1990.

If technology reduces carbon emissions to the point where we can keep flying and meet climate change targets, that's an easy answer to the problem. But I've never trusted easy answers.

Voting green is easy, but someone has to pay for it all. Hopefully not the poor.

Irish Independent

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