• That’s not to say zero net carbon emission targets are not important. Where flights are unavoidable, as for many international meetings, we should go beyond carbon offsetting to tackle some hard questions, such as how many meetings are truly necessary, and where to meet for the lightest carbon footprint
Climate change activists from the Extinction Rebellion movement block an entrance to a terminal at Geneva Airport, Switzerland, in November. Photo: EPA-EFE

The chill breath of flygskam " Swedish for flight shame " swept into the Apec Business Advisory Council meetings earlier this month when Malaysia, the chair for this year, tabled proposals for all of us to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2025.

Since an estimated 79 per cent of the carbon footprint of our quarterly meetings is generated by the flights we take to and from the meetings, whether we get to net zero will depend crucially on managing our flights.

And therein lies a dilemma. As Birgitta Frejhagen, a fan of Greta Thunberg and founder of "Gretas Gamlingar" (Greta's Oldies), put it: "There is a shame of flying, but sometimes you have to fly."

Not just in the Apec Business Advisory Council, but in countless boardrooms across the world, the same questions are surely being asked: how important is it to stop flying? When is it really essential that we fly? And if we do, how do we minimise or mitigate the emissions we generate?

Britain's Climate Commission in its "Behaviour Change, Public Engagement and Net Zero" report is clear: "Flying is a uniquely high-impact activity."

Return flights for two from London to Los Angeles, or from New Zealand to Kuala Lumpur (where many of this year's Apec meetings will be held), would emit 5.7 tonnes of carbon emissions " just short of the 8 tonnes a year generated by the average British household. Fly business class and the carbon bill doubles; fly first class and it quadruples.

Even more problematic is that international aviation is forecast to grow significantly between now and 2050, with most of this travel enjoyed by society's most affluent. The Climate Commission calculates that 70 per cent of all air miles are accounted for by the richest 15 per cent of British families.

As it warns that British families will need to live without air travel (instead travelling more by train), without fossil-fuel-powered cars (using bicycles and public transport) and without meat from methane-belching cows, it raises acutely awkward questions for places like Hong Kong.

Apart from mainland China and Macau, there is nowhere we can conveniently travel to except by air (and many families would go stir crazy without the chance to fly out once or twice a year).

As a key Asian hub of headquarters for businesses (even after the recent horrors of street violence and Covid-19), a severe clampdown on air travel would be unacceptably punishing to some of the main pillars of the economy.

If the conversation in Sydney among our 63 Apec Business Advisory Council members is any measure, the assumption is that the meetings will continue and we will have to live with flygskam, but can salve our consciences by buying carbon credits to offset our emissions bills. There was a conversation about where you could buy the cheapest credits.

My fear is that it is all going to get very much more complicated than that, for us in the council, and all businesses involved in international business.

Sometimes there is simply no choice but to fly (am I supposed to take the Trans-Siberian Railway to visit my 91-year-old mum in the United Kingdom?). Aside from that, it is important in this discussion to acknowledge that teleconferencing is simply not adequate for certain kinds of discussions, and that some insights about circumstances in other countries and regions can only come from physically being there.

To bowdlerise Mark Twain in The Innocents Abroad: "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one's lifetime."

I would not understand Islam and its world view if I had not, as a volunteer, spent a year in Peshawar close to Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

Nor would I have a gut understanding of China had I not spent so many years in the 1980s visiting farms, coal mines and duck-down factories in the drab, dirt-poor interior provinces. There are some insights that could never be gleaned from teleconferencing, or travel novels or even the best of David Attenborough's climate documentaries.

We face a clear and urgent need: net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is a deadly serious target.

The world needs China to cut its coal emissions, or all hope may be lost

More than 70 countries have signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that commits them to the net zero target, as well as 14 regional groups, 398 city governments and 786 businesses. Whether they can realise the target or have even fully taken on board the challenge is as yet unclear.

But, as we discovered during our Apec Business Advisory Council discussions in Sydney, it is going to take much more than a few conscience-salving tree-planting exercises or a few dollars to pay for carbon credits. We will have to ask more basic questions. As a group, how important is it that we meet four times a year?

Could this be cut to two or three? Does each economy need three members, or maybe just two? How many staffers should fly with them? Should they be travelling first or business class?

Should we be picking meeting locations that in net terms involve the least travel for the largest number " even if that means we abandon meetings in places such as Moscow or Santiago? Should we take a position against airlines' use of air miles rewards schemes that encourage people to fly more?

I feel strongly that groupings such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation and its advisory bodies " and the convention of holding meetings face to face across all of our economies " is indispensable in building true regional insight and cooperation.

We, in Asia, gain immeasurably by spending time in St Petersburg, Arequipa or Big Sky Montana, just as South American members gain from our meetings in Surabaya, Langkawi or Hangzhou.

But we need to square this with the imperative to reach net zero carbon emission and minimise our footprint. If we really cannot live flygfritt (flight free), we have to do whatever we can, wherever we can. We will simply have to live with the flygskam.

David Dodwell researches and writes about global, regional and Hong Kong challenges from a Hong Kong point of view

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