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The road to economic growth isn’t more flightpaths – it’s less flying


Anyone in London earlier this year couldn’t have failed to spot a widespread poster campaign by the British Airports Authority (BAA), extolling the supposed virtues of airport expansion. One particularly prominent slogan was: ‘The road to economic growth isn’t a road, it’s a flightpath’. How wrong can they be…

Aeroplane in flightOur 1 in 5 programme has helped businesses cut flights, costs, and carbon - and save time! © istockphoto.com

With so much noise from BAA and other lobbyists about needing airport expansion, you might think that aviation – single-handedly – is the white knight of UK economic recovery.

But WWF’s One in Five Challenge has a very different message. In our view businesses need to fly less, not more, to be successful. And we question whether airport expansion is needed at all.

The One in Five Challenge is our programme to help business and government to cut 20% of their flights within five years. The 12 members of our Challenge include some of the UK’s best known companies, such as Marks & Spencer, Balfour Beatty, Lloyds TSB, and BSkyB.

What’s remarkable about these companies is how quickly they have reduced their flights as part of the challenge. The latest results show that members who’ve been with the programme for two years have cut their flights by a whopping 41% on average, saving £2.4 million and reducing their carbon footprint by 3,600 tonnes of CO2.

Even companies who’ve only been members for one year have cut their flights by an average of 19%, saving £1.5 million each and decreasing their carbon dioxide emissions by 1,500 tonnes. Impressive savings, however you look at them!

If these progressive companies can cut their flights, costs, and carbon by such a significant amount, and so quickly, others can too.

Three aeroplane's contrailsWe need to make low-carbon choices in planning our future aviation to safeguard the natural world – and ourselves © Anton Vorauer / WWF-Canon

So why build a third runway at Heathrow or a new airport in the Thames Estuary? Especially as WWF has the hard evidence to prove that flying less is actually good for businesses, helping them to work better, faster, and more efficiently – without the need for any new runways.

Further evidence comes from our Moving On research with FTSE 500 companies, which shows that nearly half of companies have reduced their flying as a result of the recession and, of those, 85% have no intention of returning to previous levels of flying.

So less reliance on flying looks to be a permanent change in the way many top companies do business.

We’re not against flying. But we are concerned that aviation emissions are the fastest growing source of CO2 contributing to climate change.

Flying is by far the most carbon-intensive form of travel, producing four times the emissions of an equivalent train journey. And in a business context, huge amounts of carbon can be saved by opting for video-conferencing instead of flying to a meeting – a long-haul flight can produce 300 times the emissions of a video-conference.

Our message is simple: think before you fly.

And let’s not go down the flightpath of high-carbon airport expansion that will lock us into more and more flying, just at a time when companies are flying less and less. We also need to remember that the next five years are critical if we want to keep global warming to under 2°C.

So, more than ever, we need to make low-carbon choices in planning our future aviation needs in order to safeguard the natural world – and ourselves.

This is the business case that government should be listening to. Not the lobbyists who are putting up a smokescreen of pseudo-economic arguments but whose real motivations are self-interest and greed.

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