Last week, clips of the G7 leaders descending and ascending the steps from their airplanes in Biarritz, France were briefly displayed on television news. These scenes of leaders going up and downstairs while waving to the public and diplomats are common news fodder signalling arrivals and departures during times of formal meetings or visits. Because the aeroplanes do not stop at the usual airport gates, the clips give the viewing audience a sense for the size of these aircraft. Given that most leaders now fly on dedicated widebody aircraft, often flying their countries colours and flag, the issue of the environmental sustainability of this practice comes to light in an era of climate change.
Consider, for example, the arrival of the seven leaders in Biarritz. The three from distant countries, Japan, Canada and the United States, arrived after flying for several hours in their wide-body aircraft. Air Force One, the plane of the American President is a Boeing 747, which has a fuel burn rate of about four litres per second, so a one-way flight from Washington DC to France would use over 100,000 litres of fuel.
With some simple arithmetic applying the round trip flight recently taken by Donald Trump against standard measures of the carbon footprint of the average Hongkonger, which is nine tons of carbon a year, Trump’s flights used the equivalent annual carbon output of about 40 people in Hong Kong.
However, it isn’t the excessive carbon burned on Trump’s flights that are the main issue here. A look at one of a number of apps, such as Flightradar24 that show the number of commercial aircraft in the sky at any given moment reveals the insignificance of any one aeroplane’s contribution to carbon output. Rather, it is the optics. In effect, flying wide-body aircraft around the world carrying one important person to have discussions with a counterpart sends a clear message that such behaviour is normal and perfectly sustainable. But clearly such behaviour is far from sustainable in a world where there is an ongoing climate crisis.
Until our leaders behave in an exemplary way that shows true recognition that we need to enter a new era in which all of us carefully considers the impact of our actions on the environment, very few people will even become aware of the necessity. Just, for example, imagine what the impact would be if the G7 leaders put out a statement reading that next year’s meeting would be held by videoconferencing. And added to the announcement was a statement explaining how many tons of carbon would not enter our atmosphere as a result of the new style of meeting.
Such a groundbreaking practice could have an enormous ripple effect. If our leaders are willing to make dramatic changes, it can set an example and make it acceptable for other political and business leaders to do likewise. Of course, such a change, if it gathered steam would damage the airline industry. But such is the nature of paradigm shifts. In the meantime, companies specializing in videoconferencing would thrive.
Here in Hong Kong, our leaders have many opportunities to display leadership in sustainability in other ways. Recently, the spotlight has been on Carrie Lam who often appears in cheongsam-style dresses. Such tight-fitting clothes is best worn in cool dry air, which in Hong Kong, is almost obsessively expected in virtually every workplace. However, if she took the lead and wore light, loose-fitting clothing in summer, she could send a powerful visible message that she is abandoning her usual attire signalling more sustainable behaviour.
Given that two-thirds of our electrical energy is generated by burning fossil fuels, and over 30% of that electricity is used for air conditioning, our leaders need to take the lead and set an example of how to behave.
Currently, Hong Kongers are wrapped up in what appears to be existential matters regarding their political identity. However, the threats posed by climate change are far more existential than matters of political loyalty and personal identity. Thus, our leaders need to step up and radically change their behaviour while also being clear about why they are making the change.
Despite the promises of the Paris agreement on climate change, few people have really changed their behaviour, and global carbon emissions continue to grow. Real change entails sacrifice such as working and living in temperatures above 26 degrees, avoiding air travel and reducing, if not eliminating meat from our diets. Until our leaders show the way, it is doubtful that we will make any progress towards the worst effects of climate change.
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