Journalists can fly and still be green

Ethical Man my arse. That’s what my wife said when I told her what I was planning. I was six months into my experiment in ethical living for BBC’s Newsnight, and we had decided that it was time to tackle our culture’s most polluting activity – aviation.

Now we faced a devilish conundrum. Could we report on flying and the environment, without taking a plane?

There’s no question that we could get by without taking to the air. Journalists travel less now than ever before. Many print and online reporters rarely even attend press conferences. After all, all the information they need is there at the click of a mouse or at the end of a phone.

And staying put has a number of advantages. It is quicker, it is cheaper and now has the added sheen of being the environmentally friendly thing to do. But here’s the important question: does it serve your readers and viewers well?

My instinct was that we should fly – regardless of the carbon cost. We could probably cobble together a report using local interviewees and archive footage, but isn’t it the job of a journalist to bear witness and see things for ourselves?

And I should probably explain that this wasn’t just any old trip. We wanted to explore whether carbon offsetting really is the solution. Can we continue to fly without worrying that we are destroying the planet in the process? A carbon offsetting company had invited us to see a project installing energy-saving lightbulbs in hotels in Montego Bay. We had to decide whether we wanted to jet off to Jamaica for the weekend or not. A tough one.

I won’t pretend that the prospect of a couple of days supping Red Stripe and eating jerk chicken beside a Caribbean beach wasn’t alluring – it was. But my months as Ethical Man had brought home just how polluting flying is. My ‘carbon guru’calculated me making this one trip would be five times the carbon cost of taking my family of five to the South of France by train that summer.

I’ll cut to the chase. We went. And, I think, for good editorial reasons. We wanted to provoke people to think about their own behaviour: if our viewers found the idea of someone calling himself the Ethical Man jetting off to Jamaica outrageous, perhaps they would think again about their summer holiday in Thailand.

Flying to Jamaica also allowed us to make an important point about carbon offsetting. As my carbon guru told me in no uncertain terms, offsetting is not the same as not emitting the carbon in the first place. It is CO2 that causes climate change, he intoned, and my trip to Jamaica released around two tonnes of the stuff into the atmosphere. Putting a few energy-saving lightbulbs in doesn’t change that, even if they save a bit of carbon in the future.

His reaction was mild compared with that of our audience. When I logged on to the Ethical Man blog the next morning I discovered we had made lots of loyal viewers very angry indeed. Here’s a few of the over 100 comments we received: ‘I am ashamed of Ethical Man”, ‘how shallow”, ‘ill-conceived frivolity”, ‘very, very disappointing’and my personal favourite, ‘NOOOOOOOooooo”.

So do I regret the trip? The answer is no. I think we made a film which would encourage most viewers to think again about their flying habits and also exposed the limits to what offsetting can achieve. In short the impact of the item would more than cover the carbon cost of its production. See what you think. Watch it here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/programmes/newsnight/ethical_man/default.stm.

Journalists will be increasingly asked to justify their travel decisions as concern about the environmental impact of flying grows. I believe green men can fly – so long as they have a good reason to do so

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