**The following essay has been written after I received an invitation to write a chapter for a book on critical animal studies, through which I argue on my advocacy about living a childfree life, that will be published during 2024. I recommended to bring in the conversation the problem of aviation too, as it’s an almost taboo subject within the vegan movement… It has been a great honour to receive this offer, I am happy that I worked on it and gathered all the relevant scientific and historical info and I hope that it will be food for thought and it will generate some reflection. Feel free to share it through social media. **
Procreation & Aviation: The elephants in the vegan room
The Vegan Society defines veganism as «a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude — as far as is possible and practicable — all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.» so veganism is not limited in what we eat but it involves all our daily choices: what we clean our bodies and our house with, what we wear, the cosmetics we use, and of course entertainment. The people who always apply vegan ethics when they have to make a choice in their lived are called ethical vegans. Yet there are not all people who follow a vegan diet, ethical vegans who do it for the animals, as many people just follow a vegan (maybe better say plant-based) diet for environmental reasons as a way to mitigate their carbon footprint (for example these people wouldn’t mind using products which contain ingredients that include bee wax or propolis as long as these are from local bee keepers / bee exploiters), while some others follow a vegan/pant-based diet for its health benefits.
This essay will focus on two out of those three types of people, the ethical vegans and the people who follow a vegan diet for environmental reasons who will be called in this essay ‘plant-based environmentalists’. It is interesting that although both those types of people are choosing to refrain from animal exploitation for environmental and ethical concerns, many still make other lifestyle choices that are arguably just as damaging. For example, both the choice to procreate and travel by plane are extremely detrimental to the environment.
In the pages that follow, it will be argued that deciding to live a childfree and flightfree life is a choice that makes the biggest impact on the environment and the other animals with whom Homo Sapiens share this planet. Thus, procreation and aviation – two major parts of most people’s lives in the global North – must be challenged and re-evaluated so ethical vegans and plant-based environmentalists should consider to live childfree and flightfree, if they wish to align their values with their life choices.
In 2017, research showed being childfree or at least having one less child is the best thing someone can do for the environment, since every additional child accounts to an average for the so called “developed” countries of 58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emission per year (Wynes & Nicholas, 2017). Procreation is by far the largest contribution a human could make to climate change in their life. By not having a child or having one less child, hundreds of tonnes of carbon pollution could be mitigated. An important note on the matter is that the problem of overpopulation and how it affects the planet is not based primarily on the global South, like many want to believe, because although people in this part of the world give indeed birth to many children, the problem lies to the global North because there is where people have an extremely high carbon footprint, for example the carbon footprint of the average person in United States is as much as the one of 172 Somalis and the carbon footprint of the average person in Greece is as much as the one of 71 Somalis (Worldometer, 2016).
Following that, 1.6 tCO2e is the carbon footprint of a single roundtrip transatlantic flight while eating a plant-based diet saves only 0.8 tCO2e per year (Wynes & Nicholas, 2017). However, other carbon calculators estimate that a long-haul return flight accounts to 3,4tCO2e (Atmosfair, 2022) and that’s because burning kerosene at high altitude also generates contrails, induced cloudiness and NOx derivatives that altogether contribute substantially more to global heating than all the accumulated aviation CO2 to date (Stay Grounded fact sheet 2022). The fact is that aviation emissions are currently warming the climate at approximately three times the rate of that associated with aviation CO2 emissions alone and this is a statement backed by 21 scientists prominent in the field who conducted a reassessment taking into account the Effective Radiative Forcing (ERF) of non-CO2 components (Lee et al., 2021). Thus, a flight’s CO2 impact must be tripled in footprint calculators, in GHG reporting systems and in national emissions inventories (Stay Grounded fact sheet 2022).
Aviation has been proved to be the most climate damaging form of transport (Cohen et al., 2016) while interestingly, less than 10% of the world population have ever set foot on an aircraft (Scott et al., 2012). In addition, a more recent study, published in 2020, estimates that only 2% to 4% of the world’s population had the opportunity to fly internationally in 2018 and it concludes that just 1% of the global population (e.g. wealthy frequent flyers) are responsible for half of commercial aviation emissions (Gossling & Humpe, 2020) while the top 10% of global income earners use 75% of air transport fuel (Vox, 2020). Thus, flying less is a matter of environmental and social justice.
In 2018, aviation accounted for 5.9% of all human-caused global heating, when including non-CO2 impacts, while CO2 emissions alone are 2.9% in total when including CO2 emissions from the production and distribution of jet fuel, while for years, the aviation industry claimed that the sector was responsible for only 2% of man-made carbon emissions (Stay Grounded fact sheet, 2022).
Aviation is one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions (Stay Grounded position paper, 2018) and the most dangerous fact is that none of the following reporting systems or regulations account non-CO2 impacts: the national greenhouse gases (GHG) inventory submissions to the UNFCCC; the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), nor the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS) and this leads to a public perception of aviation being a relatively small problem (Stay Grounded fact sheet, 2022).
Biofuels, e-fuels, hydrogen & Carbon offset – just Greenwashing
The aviation industry works hard in creating “green” advertisements which mislead people who care about the environment. Airline companies claim more and more that they work towards becoming eco-friendly through the type of fuel they use and their future aircrafts, while the truth is, sadly, way far from it being true.
Everything starts with greenwashing. As put by Climate Social Science Network, Greenwashing is “an umbrella term for a variety of misleading communications and practices that intentionally or not, induce false positive perceptions of an organization’s environmental performance” (CSSN,2021). This is the case for all the alternatives presented as “green” solutions by the aviation industry because they all have problems, adverse side-effects and limits.
First of all, when it comes to Biofuels, although the industry is claiming that they are not using biofuels from crops, in reality crop-based agrofuels aren’t ruled out and waste products have very limited availability globally (Stay Grounded ‘Greenwashing fact sheet series’, 2021). In addition, crop-based biofuels come from monoculture fields which often are linked to high rates of deforestation (Transport & Environment, 2019), their cultivation increases the use of fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides and they are proven to cause very serious environmental and social impacts such as biodiversity loss, rising food prices and water scarcity (Stay Grounded ‘Greenwashing fact sheet series’, 2021). Finally, biofuels still produce very high carbon emissions – sometimes even higher since for example the climate impact of biodiesel from palm oil has been found to be three times that of fossil diesel (Transport & Environment, 2019) – and non-CO2 emissions will only be partially eliminated by using them. At the end of the day, less than 0.01% of jet fuel is biofuel currently (Stay Grounded ‘Greenwashing fact sheet series’, 2021) so it’s not even worth to bring it up in the conversation.
A case-study in Paraguay: Indigenous territories violated; environmental destruction & beef industry involved in Biofuels production
Regarding the social impacts of the crop-based biofuels, there is a very disturbing case-study on Omega Green biofuel refinery, the first so-called advanced biofuel refinery in South America. It has been conducted in Paraguay, by Heñói, the Paraguayan study centre for the promotion of democracy, human rights and socio-environmental sustainability and it was commissioned by Stay Grounded together with Biofuelwatch and the Global Forest Coalition.
In Villeta, Paraguay, the first aviation biofuel refinery is built and it’s a foreign project (‘The current investment portfolio includes interests in companies that generate fuels from renewable raw materials such as BSBIOS, R.P. BIO SWITZERLAND SA, ECB GROUP PARAGUAY and ECB GROUP BRASIL’) owned by a 43-year old Brazilian businessman, with political ties between the former president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and Paraguayan president, Mario Abdo. He is a son of Brazil farmers and known as ‘the king of biodiesel’ who aspires to become the third largest producer of biofuels in the world by 2030. This person also owns the company ECB Group which has been reported to the Federal Public Ministry in Brazil for undermining the interests of the Brazilian people for some of its businesses.
However, the land where the project will run is owned by another company (El Arreglo SA corporation) whose members of it are unknown, and the technology will be handed by a US company. The raw materials that Omega Green is going to require, according to its own environmental impact report, are oilseeds from the Ayoreo peoples’ territory who live in voluntary isolation (the plan is to actually plant 125,000 hectares (50 million trees) in the Carmelo Peralta area, in the Paraguayan Chaco, territory of the Ayoreo people), animal fats from the beef industry, vegetable oils, recycled vegetable oils and biodiesel waste.
This project affects the livelihood of a community who lives there and it has 11 families, about 50 people in total. Locals say that depopulation takes place because the community is isolated ever since the foreign companies went there to start running the project as the access is privatized by the owners of the land, El Arreglo SA. Health emergencies and even a death occurred due to the fact that locals lost their free movement ever since (Stay Grounded case-study, 2022).
Who wants to fly on planes which use biofuels with such a nasty background? Ethical vegans and plant-based environmentalists surely must ponder on that. Besides, when people and non-human animals still starve, it’s unacceptable to consume biofuels from crops for some privileged people to keep flying, even if the whole project on the first biofuel refinery in South America wasn’t violating human rights and having such a big local environmental impact.
E-fuels are synthetic fuels made from electricity. They can actually be produced by combining hydrogen with carbon to create a liquid hydrocarbon. In order to minimise emissions, hydrogen must be extracted from water by electrolysis using renewable energy; and carbon must be extracted from the air using a process called ‘Direct Air Capture’ (DAC). These can then be combined, to form a hydrocarbon fuel using Fischer-Tropsch (FT) synthesis. The latter processes must also be powered with renewable energy (Stay Grounded fact sheet series, 2021). If all jet fuel used today was to be replaced by e-fuels, it would require two and a half times the renewable electricity that was available globally in 2019 and e-fuels cost six to nine times the price of kerosene in 2020 and would still cost 2 to 3 times more in 2050 [(Stay Grounded, (2020), calculations based on IEA data of oil and electricity production in 2019 (https://bit.ly/3UNYyB7) and Clean Sky 2 JU and FCH 2 JU 2020 (bit.ly/3GFsL19)].
So, who will have access to this type of flights? As it seems, it will just be a precious commodity available only to the more privileged out of the privileged 10% who have flown so far.
Hydrogen would only be suited for regional and short to medium haul flights and would not be suitable for long haul flights which contribute about one third of aviation emissions. According to a report by the European Commission, hydrogen would not economically compete with synthetic fuels before 2050 and by then aviation industry plans to rely upon biofuels and e-fuels. Furthermore, Airbus stated that neither a medium-haul aircraft would be available before 2050 while Boeing isn’t following and engine manufacturers have expressed their reservations towards it (Stay Grounded fact sheet series, 2021).
What’s important to understand as well is that hydrogen can be produced by methane or coal too (named “grey” hydrogen) or with carbon capture and storage (this method combined with grey hydrogen gives “blue” hydrogen) while only the “green” hydrogen comes from water via renewable electricity through electrolysis. In 2018, the vast majority of the hydrogen production was “grey”, accounting for 2% of total global carbon emissions while only 0.5% of the production was “green” and a tiny amount was “blue” (Stay Grounded fact sheet series, 2021). In any case, renewable energy is scarce and should not be wasted for flying. There are other sectors, more important, that should be operating on renewable energy, such as hospitals and housing.
Hydrogen planes are like unicorns as very well said by Stay grounded: much discussed but mythical! And the only green airplane is indeed the one that stays on the ground.
Carbon offset is a reduction or removal of emissions of carbon dioxide or other greenhouse gases made in order to compensate for emissions made elsewhere. Carbon offsetting, however, is not a solution because although land-based offsets (capturing carbon through forests and soils) are good for the environment, they should be considered just as a removal. They should not be seen as an offset to justify further fossil fuel emissions, as this won’t help to stabilize temperatures or reduce the amount of emissions released into the atmosphere. In other words, we can’t keep digging up, extracting and burning fossil fuels whilst thinking that we will remove these emissions by planting trees, because this doesn’t actually reduce atmospheric emissions or atmospheric concentrations over a millennia. When we take up extra carbon through the planting of trees, this stays in the fast carbon cycle (continuous carbon cycles between the atmosphere, ocean and land), cycling back into the atmosphere and it doesn’t return to geological storage on time scales relevant to humans — meaning that the process of carbon moving from the fast carbon cycle to the effectively permanent geological reserves (e.g., fossil fuel) doesn’t happen in anything less than a thousand of years, as Kate Dooley explains, a research fellow at Melbourne University’s Climate & Energy College, with policy expertise on forest governance, climate change and carbon accounting (Brinknews, 2021 & 2022).
So, carbon offset can’t sugar-coat the selfish need of flying to exotic locations. Carbon-offset actually feels like eating “humanely slaughtered” animals, after having decided to go vegetarian. As there is no way to slaughter humanely anyone who wants to live, there is no way to travel by plane without harming the environment.
All these “green” alternatives are only making people thinking it’s O.K to keep flying around because the companies work on becoming eco – friendly and the majority won’t ever look into how biofuels are made or what actually is a carbon offset. Greenwashing is turning people into the wrong direction through very convincing ads that only sceptical people will want to dig into and investigate over the truth of what’s narrated in these ads.
Bullshit flights & Ghost flights
Some flights are unavoidable while some are even lifesaving, in other words, they can be considered as legitimate. For example, when an animal advocate flies somewhere to escort rescued non-human animals to their home or to a sanctuary/rescue centre. For the latter, sometimes, when it comes to wild animals, it’s not even necessary for a person to escort them, but the transportation itself is based on air travel for the sake of the rescued individuals, in order to minimize their distress. Other legitimate flights can be ones for emergency reasons (disaster relief), safe escape routes for refugees, or visiting family in another continent for a considerable amount of time (when there is no alternative transport mode).
However, more often than not, people book tickets for so-called “bullshit flights”: “Analogous to the concept of bullshit jobs – jobs that are meaningless and harmful for society, bullshit flights are unnecessary, frivolous and unfair” (Stay Grounded, 2021).
Disclaimer: The term ‘bullshit’ is speciesist and it should rather be ‘humanshit’ because bulls and their faeces have nothing to do with our wrongdoings.
Examples of such flights are the ones booked for weekend trips (and especially domestic flights), the use of private jet, incredibly cheap international low-cost flights etc. (Stay Grounded, 2021). Of course, this term would annoy the majority of people, as these spontaneous trips are giving birth to feelings of excitement and fun, but at which cost? Aren’t they other ways – more environmentally friendly – to have fun? As the relevant article of Stay Grounded network rightfully expresses: “The idea is to link [the notion of bullshit flights] with the institutional and societal structures behind them – with the economy and power relations that lead to bullshit flights. The power of the aviation industry exists both through a broad consensus that flights are fun, or could be fun if one could afford it, as well as through state subsidies, effective lobbying and greenwashing. It exists due to a lack of alternatives to travel, due to globalized trade, and a growing gap between rich and poor.” (Stay Grounded, 2021).
Therefore, the problem is, at its core, systemic. Not many people have the practical ability or can even afford slow travel (travel by other means) as grind culture has people overworking and only able to take a couple of weeks off, twice a year. In a way it’s even romanticized and glorified through the mentality “go big and don’t go home”, especially among Millennials.
Nevertheless, it is still surprising how often and how easily, plant-based environmentalists and ethical vegans use airplanes.
Another astonishing type of flights, which isn’t known by many, is the called “Ghost flights”. These flights are defined as those with no passengers, or less than 10% of passenger capacity. Their reason of existence is due to the fact that airlines must normally run 80% of their flights, empty or not, to retain their landing slots (…). For example, an average of 500 climate damaging ghost flights left the UK each month in 2021 (The Guardian, 2022). A parliamentary petition was set up in 2022, calling for an end to such flights taking place and it has been signed by 16,968 people. The governmental response was the following: “The Government continues to provide alleviation from normal airport slot rules to prevent airlines from operating environmentally damaging ‘ghost’ flights during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Ghost flights and bullshit flights are the epitome of human greed and selfishness.
While we are in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, doesn’t it sound a little bit paradoxical to procreate? Our species today occupies or has at least transformed almost 90% of planet Earth’s land (Latham et al., 2014). While our population is growing, environmental degradation grows along, generating pollution and fragmentation of wildlife habitats and most importantly, this unlimited growth of our population disrupts the communication and the mating behaviours of the other species and as a result, it affects negatively their reproductive success (Candolin & Wong, 2013).
Trying to exonerate our species as a whole, some people would blame capitalism, consumption and the industrial revolution instead, claiming also that it’s the people from the Global North who are to blame, and not humans altogether. But sadly, we are the culprits, and there is historical proof counting back some tens of thousands of years ago, which demonstrate clearly how we are the deadliest animal to ever have existed on planet Earth.
Homo Sapiens – the ecological serial killer
It all starts with the arrival of homo Sapiens in Australia around 45.000 years ago. During this time, the Earth was experiencing a period of climate change, which would have probably been able to recuperate from if it were not for humans. However, the combination of climate change, along with human hunting, devastated the Australian megafauna and that’s because these marsupial lions (the continent’s largest predator), diprotodons and giant (200-kilogram & two-metre) kangaroos, along with huge koalas, enormous flightless birds, dragon-like lizards and snakes five metres long – they all had no time to evolve a fear of humankind and thus, before they could do so, just within a few thousand years, they were gone (Harari, 2014 and references therein).
The giant diprotodon existed in Australia for 1.5 million years and successfully survived at least ten previous ice ages along with the first peak of the last ice age, around 70,000 years ago. But more than 90 per cent of Australia’s megafauna disappeared 45.000 years ago, and among them was the diprotodon.
Out of the twenty-four Australian animal species weighing more than fifty kilograms, twenty-three became extinct. Furthermore, a considerable number of smaller species also disappeared at that time and as a result, food chains throughout the entire Australian ecosystem were broken and had to be rearranged. For millions of years, this was the most important transformation of the Australian ecosystem and the appearance of Homo Sapiens at that moment has not been a coincidence. Especially if we take into account the fact that oceanic species did not disappear and that’s because Homo Sapiens didn’t have yet the knowledge to conquer the sea too. Whereas if this massive extinction was a consequence of climate change, sea animals would have to disappear as well (Harari, 2014 and references therein).
Similar ecological disasters have taken place in so many other areas (facts proven by fossil records), and the narrative is always the same:
- New Zealand: Within a couple of centuries after the arrival of the Maoris in New Zealand (who were its first human colonisers, about 800 years ago), majority of the local megafauna became extinct, along with 60 per cent of all bird species.
- America: Around 16,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens reached the western hemisphere landmass. Animals and plants that have been unknown to Africa and Asia were there flourishing, only to get extinct within 2000 years of humans’ arrival. North America lost 34 out of 47 large animal species while South America lost 50 out of 60. To name some of them: Mastodons – rodents the size of bears, oversized lions, giant ground sloths (up to eight tons and reached a height of six metres), sabre – tooth cats (disappeared after thriving for more than 30 million years), herds of native American horses and camels, along with thousands of species of smaller mammals, reptiles, birds, and even insects and parasites also, they all became extinct after humans set foot in the Americas.
- Cuba and Hispaniola (at the Caribbean Sea): Scientists who look for fossilised bones and petrified faeces have stated that the freshest dung balls and the most recent camel bones date to the period when humans flooded America. Only in one area they have discovered younger dung balls, in Cuba and Hispaniola, where they found petrified ground-sloth scat dating to exactly the time when the first humans managed to cross the Caribbean Sea and settle these two large islands.
- Wrangel Island (on top of Siberia) in the Arctic Ocean: The last mammoths that ever existed, disappeared from that island about 4000 years ago, right after the first humans reached it, despite having flourished for millions of years. They had already retreated from Eurasia and North America from where they disappeared 10,000 years ago.
- Galapagos islands: Uninhabited by humans until the nineteenth century, they managed to preserve by then their unique diversity of animal species, including their famous giant tortoises, who, like the ancient diprotodons, showed no fear of humans. These animals were considered to be extinct for the last 100 years ago, but -sadly for them-, one individual was recently found…
- Madagascar: Some majestic animals were living and thriving there, like the elephant birds and the giant lemurs but they suddenly vanished, along with most of the other large animals of Madagascar, about 1,500 years ago – precisely when the first humans arrived on the island.
- Solomon Islands, Fiji and New Caledonia, Samoa and Tonga, the Marquis Islands, Easter Island, the Cook Islands and Hawaii: A similar wave of extinction took place in all these places with hundreds of species (birds, insects, snails and other local inhabitants) being killed off by humans, directly or indirectly.
and almost every one of the thousands of islands in the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Arctic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea (Harari, 2014 and references therein).
Hence, our species is indeed the deadliest animal that ever existed on Earth, as Harari rightfully claims in his book. If we then add to that, the current technological “needs” of ours, along with our daily need for power (electricity) there is no question why more and more people who care about the Earth and the other animals decide to live childfree nowadays.
Even if everyone was able to live off the grid, the very manufacture of solar panels and batteries is highly destructive for the environment (adding to this the fact that batteries don’t live forever and they need to be replaced every 5-8 years), there is no environmentally friendly vehicle (other than wooden bicycles possibly), there is only one company that manufactures ethical and sustainable smartphones (which do not meet the needs of many people) and no similar computers exist yet. But even if they existed, having this alternative, doesn’t mean that their construction has no impact for the environment.
One could say that both plant-based environmentalists and ethical vegans who travel by plane or/ and procreate, may suffer unbeknownst to them, from cognitive dissonance, a mental conflict that occurs when a person’s behaviour and beliefs do not align, which in that case could be called climate dissonance.
So, there is no way around the truth: It’s not possible for humans to not be destructive for the other animals and the Earth. The more ethical vegans and plant-based environmentalists realize it, the better.
On Parenthood & Adoption
There is nothing wrong with parenthood. It’s natural for the majority of people (not everyone feels this need neither everyone is appropriate to become a parent) to feel that need. However, with so many kids having being brought into existence by irresponsible or sick people who can’t take proper care of them, along with the unlucky kids who lose their parents while they are still young, it would be better to give them a chance to grow in a family, so they don’t get raised in orphanages / hospitals.
For many non-human animal advocates against procreation, the thinking is similar to “adopt, don’t shop”. As long as there are kids with no parents, people should adopt instead of procreating.
On the other hand, adoption itself is often problematic, not only because many are resulting from crimes such as abduction and sale of, and trafficking in children, but also because even the legal procedure in many cases is so costly that it has become an option only for privileged people. Furthermore, in many countries, the whole exhausting bureaucratic procedure, has an emotional toll and is very discriminative towards people of minority groups.
The problem lies, once again, on the system and it needs to be addressed with a multi-disciplinary approach so more people can have access to ethical adoption and as a result less people would procreate.
As explained thoroughly in this essay, both flying and procreating can only be considered nowadays as an environmental crime. Ethical vegans and plant-based environmentalists who care deeply about their brethren (the other less privileged people and non-human animals) and the planet, must think twice next time they will feel the urge to book a ticket without hesitation, just to travel for fun, and ponder on parenting, while considering adoption as a more environmentally friendly option of parenthood. At the end of the day, family is not limited in having human kids and it’s time to reframe parenthood by normalizing adopting rescued non-human animals and taking care of them along with the Earth. This is a way to build a more livable future and minimize our environmental footprint.
Many thanks to Anita Chan & Adelle Goodman for proofreading it and helping me out to express in a better way some of my thoughts and many thanks to Sarat Colling for some insightful comments that contributed to the end result.
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