In praise of the carbon footprint

Dec 03, 2019
Travel is a critical enabler in our efforts to tackle the climate crisis, however contrary that might seem. Brian Keegan explains why.

We may need to increase our carbon footprint. This thought occurred to me some 35,000 feet over the Atlantic but is perhaps none the less valid for it.

By now, no one can deny that climate change is real. Denying it is the 21st century equivalent of suggesting that the sun won’t rise tomorrow unless something (or someone) is sacrificed. I don’t believe, however, that mankind’s role in the climate change challenge will be resolved by not travelling.

We are social animals and cannot work together, sustain our families or feed our intellects without some degree of travel. I don’t know any parent who wouldn’t undertake a school run purely on the grounds of minimising their carbon footprint. Nor do I know anyone who would decide not to visit an elderly parent for fear of the carbon emissions from the car journey they might have to make.

The challenge for “clean” energy

Well over half a century ago, the psychologist, Abraham Maslow, proposed a hierarchy of human needs. These range from basic needs like food, water and shelter and then onwards up the hierarchy towards a notion of self-actualisation. Self-actualisation is all about developing and using abilities and talents. The theory goes that people tend to attend to the more basic needs at the bottom of the hierarchy first, and then move upwards. In the past, travel might have been more linked with activities at the top of the hierarchy. However, climate change may have snookered that perspective as using abilities and talents become more fundamental to securing routine shelter and safety.

The snag is that travel is now inseparably associated with the release of unwelcome levels of CO2 into the atmosphere, with the attendant consequences of climate change. The problem, though, is not the release of CO2 from the combustion engines used in most types of travel. Instead, the problem is one of fuel portability. Fossil fuels – the liquid hydrocarbons like petrol and diesel – are popular because they are easy to store and replenish, and relatively small quantities can deliver useful distances (as anyone who has ever suffered range anxiety in an electric car will confirm).

The technology exists to generate “clean” energy without releasing carbon into the atmosphere – solar, hydro, wind. Even nuclear works, depending on your definition of “clean”. The biggest technical challenge now is not clean energy. Rather, it is how to deliver the clean energy currently being generated in a format that is widely suitable for transport.  

“You can’t email a handshake”

Greta Thunberg’s contribution to the tackling of climate change this year was not so much her address to the United Nations. Nor was it her publicity stunt to sail to New York to make her speech, rather than fly there like the rest of us. Her contribution was to acknowledge the fact that people need to travel to collaborate to find solutions and make an impact. As Tyrone manager, Mickey Harte, pointed out at an Institute event some time ago, you can’t email a handshake.

If societies decide not to promote the kind of human association that is required to tackle climate change by putting embargoes or levies on travel, the problems will never be solved. Little progress can be made without socialisation.

Colleagues here at the Institute are currently examining the issues associated with sustainability reporting by businesses and firms. What gets measured gets done. It’s just one example of the collaboration needed at every level of industry to resolve environmental issues.

This will never be achieved if, to save the planet, we all decide just to stay at home.

Dr Brian Keegan is Director of Advocacy & Voice at Chartered Accountants Ireland.