We cannot avoid ‘hairshirtism’ because of technological promises

A blog post by Dr Noel Cass, Research Fellow in Energy Demand Behaviour at the Institute for Transport Studies 

Recently, the Guardian has pointed out that the Nudge Unit’s blueprint for government actions required to achieve significant behaviour change for meeting these targets, including reducing car travel, and levies on meat and frequent flying, were almost immediately withdrawn from government websites, as they contradict the PM’s foreward to the Net Zero Strategy. This claims that:

We can build back greener, without so much as a hair shirt in sight… In 2050 we will still be driving cars, flying planes and heating our homes, but our cars will be electric, gliding silently around our cities, our planes will be zero emission, allowing us to fly guilt-free, and our homes will be heated by cheap, reliable power drawn from the winds of the North Sea.

By comparing hair shirts to an imagined future where net-zero is achieved simply by technological substitution, the Prime Minister is trying to equate calls for absolute levels of demand reduction with discomfort and religious fanaticism. Along with his dismissive comments about ‘tree huggers’, it is to position government policies against those in the broader environmental movement, who are clear that we cannot substitute our way to net-zero – the absolute amount of energy used in everyday life has to reduce, and that will require deep behaviour changes. To talk about continuing to live in exactly the same way, guilt-free, is part of a ‘culture war’ where the deep anxieties around the needs for demand reduction through lifestyle and behaviour change must be assuaged, by taking a stand against what the science, research, and the environmental movement are loudly declaring is the reality of responding to the climate emergency.

On electric vehicles, CREDS research has pointed out that “technical substitution alone may be too slow to contribute meaningfully to meeting ‘net zero’ carbon reduction targets”, meaning that:

Much more emphasis in policy and strategy development should be put on travel demand reduction and the role of lifestyle change.

Is guilt free flying possible?

CREDS’ recent major report underlines this need for demand reduction. But on guilt-free flights, the evidence is even clearer. The prospect of ‘zero emissions flights’ has been characterised as a technology myth, a propaganda drive by the air industry, one which has been going on for decades, and blamed by researchers for generating a widely held understanding of, and continuing faith in a looming future of sustainable aviation […These] aviation technology myths must be recognised, confronted and overcome as a critical step in the pathway to sustainable aviation climate policy.” Their 2016 research identified 12 such myths of technological fixes for aircraft, engines and alternatives, none of which have come to fruition, despite cycles of being hyped in the media, and then quietly forgotten.

Other research in 2019 concluded that aviation emissions could not be reduced to avoid climate change without more coercive measures to actively reduce demand or restrict flying because “[b]usiness as usual in the aviation sector is incompatible with a habitable planet”. Such actions should include stopping airport expansion plans currently supported by the government, an appeal which the chair of the Climate Change Committee (CCC) recently made directly to airports themselves, and imposing frequent flier levies, supported by the CCC, the Nudge Unit, and increasingly, the public themselves, along with other strong government actions. These and other issues regarding tackling what I am calling ‘(hyper)aeromobility’ are discussed in a CREDS paper I have written with colleagues in the Universities of Leeds and Dortmund. This is in turn based on my CREDS interview research on ‘high consumption’, which is summarised in a conference paper about how different factors including wealth, artificially cheap flights, the purchase of foreign properties and the internationalisation of holidays, social networks, specific social practices and ‘rituals’ such as birthdays, marriages and stag nights, all combine to create an ‘escalator’ of flying behaviour, particularly in the rich.

What about flying taxis?

A timely Guardian article this week has raised another of these technology myths in support of guilt-free flight; the prospect of electric VTOL (Vertical Take Off and Landing) taxis, or flying cars. It asks whether these might help fix urban transportation, i.e. to replace regular taxis and therefore ‘green’ urban transport. In addition to revealing how such technological myths have been popularly promoted in the media and arts since at least the start of the last century, it is worth examining the way in which this article answers its questions, as it reveals important problems with dominant ways of thinking about transport research, energy demand research, and their links with urban planning and policy making, as well as the politics of climate policy.

The article first performs a one-for-one, like-for-like comparison of the proposed flying taxi with a helicopter and then a car, and finds that it is ‘more efficient’ (using less energy per passenger mile/kilometer). It thereby assumes that the flying taxi is a straightforward substitute for either helicopters, increasingly common for the private flights of the rich in congested cities, or taxis, polluting and stuck in congestion. Such like-for-like comparisons are a go-to for quantitative technology and transport research methods. They draw a system boundary (the vehicle and its fuel) and only look at what is within it, ignoring huge numbers of complex system dynamics, whereby all forms of transport can have knock-on, rebound, and feedback effects on other aspects of society, all with energy demand consequences.

The article does draw attention to the issue of the different origins of electricity in different energy mixes, which may drag in fossil fuels ‘via the back door’. The ‘green’ promise of flying taxis, as in the case of Electric Vehicles in general or of all electrification aspects of decarbonisation, depends on a transformation of energy generation to renewable sources. The article also points out how there are other likely ‘secondary rebound effects’ – on planning and sprawl, as faster transport modes have always expanded commuting distances, with implications for energy required to access key sites and services, and also on induced traffic created by taking cars off the road. But it does not address the (cradle-to-grave) expanded network of factors in LCA (Life-Cycle Analysis) environmental impact studies, such as embedded energy from manufacture, the origins of battery components, and other issues CREDS researches under ‘materials & products’.

We need less, not more

However, the direct comparison also raises other issues. In terms of analysing the use of the new technology to transport people, it carries out a simplistic ‘efficiency’ analysis which assumes that all that matters is the comparison of energy units expended per unit of equivalent energy service provided: here, passenger miles/kilometres. It ignores that it is adding a new energy service – it is additive, not substitutional, and will drive demand (for flying taxis and for their services) and therefore energy use, upwards, not down. It is a perfect example of how the prima facie ‘logical’ ‘efficiency discourse’ actually achieves the opposite – it is driving ever-increasing energy demands, due to new, ‘more efficient’ energy-services-providers, or ‘needs satisfiers’. In other words, when new technologies evolve, new and more energy-demanding needs and ways of satisfying them co-evolve with them; a central focus of the 5-year work of the Demand Centre. A focus of policy should be to stop ‘needs’ and their satisfaction escalating, particularly in the case of behaviour like flying, which is increasing in an exponential manner, particularly in the UK.

This is a crucial argument against the Prime Minister’s claim that ‘hairshirtism’ will not be required. Research has long shown that a focus on efficiency rather than ‘sufficiency’, in other words, on producing more and more efficient devices rather than focusing on how to satisfy needs with less stuff and less energy, ignores this coevolution of needs with technologies, and the ratcheting effect this has on energy demand. In the field of hyperaeromobility, this underlines the point that increases in flight numbers are due not to new people starting to fly, rather than affluent people travelling more, with new ‘needs’ to do so, with the result that CREDS research has established that 15% of fliers in the UK take 70% of the flights, and globally “at most 1% of the world population – likely accounts for more than half of the total emissions from passenger air travel”.

Frequent flier levies may, and should, be designed to impact these people, rather than the relatively infrequent flights of other segments of the population, at least at first, in order to achieve the absolutely necessary reining in of the carbon emissions of aviation. Hairshirts, in the form of lifestyle and behaviour changes to less driving, flying, and meat eating, are required to achieve net-zero, particularly in the case of aviation. The issue, as is often the case, is that it is the wealthy who would be asked to pay for, or moderate their energy demand and consumption. It is this that lies behind the Prime Minister’s blithe reassurances: a desire not to upset his imagined political base. Although climate policies are intrinsically political, especially in the need for a just transition for a net-zero society, science and research, rather than politics should drive climate and energy demand policies. That the Nudge Unit, set up to mainstream behaviour change in government policy, is recommending the same, underlines the need for strong government restrictions on the most climate damaging behaviours.


Image by George Bakos on Unsplash