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[Tyler Cowen] Greta, It’s OK to fly

Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, recently announced that she would cross the Atlantic Ocean by boat to attend a United Nations global warming summit in New York. She does not believe in flying in airplanes, for the obvious reason that air travel is a contributor to the carbon emissions problem.

I am here with a simple message: Greta, it is OK to fly. Indeed, I encourage you to fly.

This isn’t just about Thunberg. I often hear it argued that Al Gore is a hypocrite for complaining about carbon emissions while flying around the globe. International meetings such as Davos are criticized for holding sessions on climate change attended by people who may have flown in on their private planes.

But flying isn’t the worst offender when it comes to sources of carbon emissions. Some critics suggest flying accounts for 5 percent of the world’s carbon emissions, but most estimates put aviation’s share at closer to 2 percent. Whatever the exact number may be, it is hardly the major problem.

Carbon emissions can come from stationary power sources (such as burning coal), automobiles, food production, construction, cement and, among other sources, air travel. It is plausible to expect a lot of progress on solar, wind, nuclear and even fracking to cut carbon output. The use of more electric cars and possibly hydrogen vehicles will also help reduce emissions. Food production could be improved significantly if people simply ate less meat. Energy-efficient construction may prove harder to achieve. But air travel may be the very hardest part of the problem to solve because nuclear, solar- or battery-powered large jets seem to be very far from market, even if biofuels can offer some relief.

We should feel pretty comfortable with significantly reducing carbon emissions in most major areas except air travel. If that isn’t enough for Thunberg, she could ask the airline to let her fly only if there are extra seats on the flight. The plane might burn a little more fuel than otherwise, but she can pack lightly. She might even ask them to fly a little more slowly to burn less fuel.

It’s not clear that Thunberg’s decision to take the boat will lower carbon emissions at all, much less impact global temperatures. There are numerous media articles about this decision, with more to come, and when people read those articles (including this one), it demands more energy from computer servers and screens.

As it stands, Thunberg will be spending about two weeks on a boat, in fairly uncomfortable circumstances. That may make her less productive, to the possible detriment of climate change campaigns.

Obviously there is a symbolic aspect to the decision. Perhaps Thunberg and others feel they should take a public stand against all possible decisions to generate carbon emissions. But no one can meet that standard and remain alive. Arguably the symbolic message we ought to send is one of prioritization, not one of picking out a few highly visible public acts simply for the purpose of making a show of it.

Or think more broadly about how to choose one’s symbolic commitments to combat climate change. Buying a carbon offset, verifiable by an independent third party, seems like a good practical step. Thunberg also could take a stand in favor of nuclear power -- a feasible source of green energy -- except that she opposes it. Nuclear power has worked quite well for France for about 70 years, even if it is not suitable for earthquake zones.

Another way to show one’s dedication to limiting global temperatures would be to educate the public on carbon sequestration, which recently has made a good deal of real progress. How about a strike or demonstration to call people’s attention to the possibilities of this new technology, and to ask for additional funding?

I think breakthroughs on carbon capture are more likely than the world’s wealthier citizens deciding to give up or even severely curtail their flying.

Keep in mind that flying also has a green upside. Green technologies will need to spread around the world. That could involve, for instance, China learning new ideas from America, or vice versa. That process will go a lot more quickly with flying, including to scientific conferences and to set up green factories.

I’m fine with people deciding they don’t want to fly, but the rest of us should not rush into thinking that is the mark of a dedicated purist, or an especially effective practical tool. It is one symbolic commitment among many, and not obviously the best one.

Tyler Cowen
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. -- Ed.