I emailed Mr Lewis to ask him to stop recommending cheap flights on his website offering him to take him off my list of key people irresponsible enough to cause global warming. He responded on his blog. This is my response to his assessment:
Dear Mr Lewis,
A whopping 3,000,000 people receive your weekly newsletter. Let's try to estimate the take up on your cheap flight offers (correct me if you have better data, this is just a back of the envelope calculation). If 10% are using your newsletter tips to board one flight a year to a European destination, the annual carbon footprint of that (see footnote 1) is 210,000 tonnes. In order to make your recommendations you are using, like many other businesses, a subsidy from Nature to the tune of £7,350,000 (see footnote 2). That's not a negligible amount.
To illustrate the size of the estimated carbon emissions generated through your newsletter, it is equivalent to insulating just short of 350,000 homes a year with cavity wall insulation. A large town’s effort to become energy efficient is canceled out by your readers. As you know, the government subsidizes the cost of cavity wall insulation and in this case, it costs the taxpayer a little over £86,000,000 to insulate these homes. Of course, there are other reasons outside of CO2 cuts why insulation is subsidized but I simply want to highlight some of the taxpayer and environmental costs caused by people taking advantage of cheap flight offers.
Another estimate is that the carbon footprint generated through your newsletter is equivalent to the annual carbon footprint of more than 27,500 Brits (see footnote 3). I understand you don't want to offset your readers flights and hope that they will be wise enough to offset through the savings you’ve helped them achieve. The reality however is different as I will demonstrate, most of your readers will not offset.
I find these carbon emission estimates quite alarming, disturbing and unacceptable. You may well have the most polluting newsletter in the world.
Most of the time you'd expect polluters to be involved in big business but you're not, you're involved in ethical business which makes your particular case unique in the UK. I cannot understand how you have managed to take an ethical standpoint fighting the consumer’s side for years and failed to give some serious consideration to the considerable environmental impact your newsletter has had.
I have reviewed the points you made in your blog extensively and the content of the transport section of your site and tried to the very best of my ability to understand your values, beliefs and motivations. I’ve come to the conclusion that cheap flights actually do have their rightful place on your site so I don't think you should stop trying to save people money on them altogether.
What bothers me is the fact that you are not just providing advice on cheap flights; you are actively encouraging people to take advantage of cheap flight offers. In respect of flights, you may well be defending the less well off but I want to vividly attract your attention to the fact that you are simultaneously delivering a poison pill to your readers children, grand-children, great-grand children and right at this moment in time, to the poorest citizens of the developing world, the ones who live on less than $2 a day and who are damned if they can’t extract their food supply from the soil. A few consecutive droughts and they’re dead. Surely you must be sensitive, perhaps sad when you contemplate the dreadful consequences of your cheap flight recommendations? I'd like you to do something about it.
As an eager recipient of your newsletter, I can’t help but notice every time I get it that you’ve insured through the positioning of the text, the font, size and design that I absolutely cannot miss the flight bargains you want to attract my attention to since whenever they are available they're right at the top.
It seems that your website is severely lacking in a responsible environmental policy. I have a suggestion for you, something deadly simple that you can do that may affect the site’s income, but I’m sure it won’t break the piggy bank and since you’re a person of ethical standing, I expect that you are willing to make an effort and if it comes to it, pay the price when it comes to ethical matters. My suggestion is this:
You could stop attracting your visitor’s attention to cheap flights on your homepage and stop putting them at the top of your newsletter. If you do that, you'll stop people who aren't actively looking for cheap flights to take advantage of the information and you will be discouraging what might be termed as opportunistic flying. If people want to save money on their flights, they can still use all the tools on the website but at least the people using your tools will be ones who have already decided to go on holiday, not the ones you've incentivised to go on holiday.
I have surveyed 32 of your newsletters from the past few months and found that at the top of each of these newsletters, cheap flights are recommended 50% of the time. I suspect that matches the timing of the offers from the airlines rather than an ethical concern you may have about incentivising too many people to board planes too often.
I was concerned in your response by your hopes about voluntary carbon emission offsets and your assumptions about people’s ability to make responsible decisions when it comes to flying so I did some more research.
The WORLDWIDE voluntary carbon offset market is worth a paltry £55 million a year according to Wikipedia. Humans emit 32 billion tonnes of CO2 a year, 10% of that is said to be due to the airline industry (this includes CO2 and other greenhouse gases that are quite difficult to quantify) so the annual emissions from airlines is 3.2 billion tonnes. The voluntary carbon offset market would need to be worth £112 billion a year to offset airline emissions. This means that only 0.05% of the emissions from airlines are actually being offset. In the case of the estimated £7 million you expect to be offset, the reality is that probably only £3600 of that actually does get offset! If you had to foot the bill for the environmental cost of your recommendations, I suspect it would cause you to have to take your own online advice about solving your debt problems!
Your hope that people will fly more cheaply but not necessarily more often is not realistic. With bargain basement flights so easily available, there’s nothing stopping people from flying for any and whatever occasion they fancy. If I’m looking for a romantic week-end with my wife, nothing stops me from nipping into Rome on Saturday and coming back on Sunday. Going to Rome beats going to a local posh restaurant. But how is the person making the flight decision expected to know that the carbon footprint of going to Rome is probably 70 times higher than going to the restaurant and that it represents 23% of an individual’s ANNUAL sustainable carbon footprint allocation? Most of the time, people won’t know or ignore it. One other problem is that we are not yet affected by the consequences of climate change in the UK. If people could see the problem, they'd probably act but since it's going to take another few decades before things start getting seriously ugly, they are still sheltered from the damage they are causing. When they finally wake up to it and want to do something about it, it will be too late. Once temperatures exceed two degrees, that's it, we're finished, we will have runaway global warming and it will be impossible to stop it.
We only have a five year window, maybe less to start making some drastic changes to our lifestyles. This is URGENT.
You hope that people will use your site responsibly. How can you expect a poorly informed public to make responsible decisions? You quoted yourself a survey showing 53% of your visitors don’t think or aren’t sure there’s a problem with global warming. If they don’t think it’s a problem and they can fly cheaply, why should they fly responsibly?
I’ve searched for more information on consumer attitudes to flying and understanding of global warming and found the following: according to an HSBC survey from 2007, only 19% of UK consumers state that they are making a significant effort to reduce climate change through how they live their daily lives. Only 6% believe that we can stop climate change. 56% agree to the fact that many leading experts still question if human activity is contributing to climate change. Further, according to a British Air Travel Association survey, only 12% state that they are very concerned about the effects of air travel. According to that same survey, only 3% state that they no longer travel by air due to their concerns. (Source) And you expect people to fly responsibly?
You also highlighted that people are being educated by the media in environmental matters but there is an awful lot of misinformation about our problem in the media which could well explain why so many doubt global warming is occurring and we are the cause. In An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore highlighted that “a study reviewed a sample of 928 articles in the scientific, peer reviewed press. Out of those 928 articles, none were in disagreement as to the fact that global warming was a serious problem and that mankind was the cause. Another study of the articles in the popular press found that out of 636 articles, 53% were in doubt as to the cause of global warming.” Not a week goes by where I open a paper and read another inaccurate and flawed analysis on global warming. They are so frequent that I’ve given up black listing journalists where you're listed because there’d be just too many for me to keep count of. People are as informed as they are misinformed by the media, which is exactly what needs to be done to foster doubt and inaction.
I'll make one final point about government (I apologize for taking so long). I don't think it is your job to cut down carbon emissions, it should be the government's. However the government, as you probably know has contradictory policies on global warming action plans. These contradictions have enraged some of the more knowledgeable commentators such as George Monbiot (see footnote 4).
How can the government announce it wants to cut down emissions by 90% by 2030 and not restrain the growth of the aviation industry? Aviation accounts for 13.4% of the country's emissions and is forecast to grow to 30% by 2030. This is just another reason why you should be concerned about your cheap flight recommendations. As far as government goes, I'm afraid we the individuals are going to have to show the way so that the government follows. I wouldn't place too much hope on the government doing too much to restrict the amount of flying we do be that through taxes or allocating flying limits, that is if past policy so far can serve as a guide to future policy expectations. Mr Monbiot's views on this in footnote 4 are worthwhile reading. And I also refer you to a Daily Politics poll that shows that despite only 3% of the population giving up flying altogether, it appears that they support taxation of airlines for the pollution they are responsible for. The poll shows that 52% of respondents support David Cameron’s plan to increase taxes on air travel and would be happy to fly less in order to reduce carbon emissions. (Source)
I’ve pointed out to you that you rely on an estimated subsidy from Nature to the tune of £7 million to provide the recommendations you do. You’re almost on benefits Mr Lewis. I find it annoying that the host of economic benefits provided by your service are somewhat canceled out by taxpayer funded efforts to reduce carbon emissions. To me that seems counterproductive and reminiscent of the expression coined by sustainable architect Macdonough of "intergenerational tyranny". It can be paraphrased as an attitude of "it's not my problem, it's the next generation's". Implicitly, you are "passing the buck" to the next generation.
I agree that flying has tremendous benefits and that it has indeed democratized society, but in a world where it is vital that we make some choices on the areas in which to cut our carbon emissions, reducing our amount of flying is simply a no-brainer. Better have a less democratic society than total chaos a few decades from now don’t you think? Unfortunately, when it comes to environmental decisions, we are often faced with a "least bad" set of alternatives and we are already handicapped by the pollution of previous generations.
Your free subsidy would not be a problem if carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were not 30% higher than they were prior to the industrial revolution and human population had not grown exponentially to the current level of 7 billion people. The world is over populated and this is resulting in a strain on the Planet’s ability to cope with the environmental impact. Right now, our consumption is already 22% above what the Planet can cope with. This is alarming. We have to reduce our carbon emissions by 90% in the developing world by 2030 otherwise the science tells us global temperatures will rise above 2 degrees and mankind may well become extinct as a consequence. The greatest UK scientist, Stephen Hawkins said the following about runaway global warming: "We don’t know where the global warming will stop but the worst-case scenario is that Earth would become like its sister planet, Venus, with a temperature of 250 degrees centigrade, and raining sulfuric acid. The human race could not survive in those conditions."
In the UK, to switch to a sustainable lifestyle, we have to reduce the average carbon emissions per individual from 12.5 tonnes to 3 tonnes. By encouraging people to fly, you are encouraging them to live an unsustainable lifestyle and tragically, they don't know better. The average lifestyle in the UK is already four times more carbon intensive than what is considered to be sustainable. Flying less is the only difficult lifestyle adjustment we are required to complete. Are you going to help with that or are you going to be a hindrance?
Leonardo da Vinci once said that he who does not punish evil commands it to be done. This is a philosophy you seem to apply across your website at the exception of your cheap flight recommendations. I sincerely hope Mr Lewis that you reflect on your views, find the strength to change your mind and do your bit to pass on the gift that was passed on to you to future generations: life.
(1) Assuming CO2 emissions of 700 kilos per passenger per flight, the equivalent of a London to Rome trip.
(2) Based on the current price per tonne of carbon using Atmosfair's prices of roughly £35 (read the carbon offset section of my website to see why I recommend them)
(3) Based on Chris Goodall's, how to live a low carbon life's book estimate of 12.5 tonnes of CO2 emissions per person per year.
(4) More info here: http://www.monbiot.com/archives/2009/07/06/subsidising-the-climate-crash/
Chris Goodall, How To Live a low carbon life, p218
The 11th Hour
Had I managed to convince Martin Lewis to stop advertising cheap flights on his newsletter, it would have saved me and my team from having to visit 60-90,000 homes. The only change made on the money saving expert site was: "We hope this helps you fly cheaper, but not necessarily more often. Remember the environment" on the flight checker tool. My wife thought that was a result. I note it's at the bottom of the flight checker tool in small characters. If you're not looking for it, you won't notice it. This campaign has been a waste of time. Mr Lewis's lack of understanding is symptomatic of our society's story and attitude. Unless we see a problem, we don't know it's there. By the time we see the global warming problem, it will be too late. We are where we are now because of our lack of mindfulness and we will get where we are going because of that. It is best summarized by the quote from the film La Haine:
"It's the story of a man falling from a skyscraper. As he passes each floor he repeats to himself: up to now all is well, up to now all is well. But it's not how you fall that matters, it's how you land."
We will not realize what we've done until we land. Once a 200,000 year journey ends, by the end of the century, there will be no new beginning for us. Hope is now but hope is already gone.