If you want to escape from the misery of the Irish winter the warmest, cheapest and most direct destination is the Canary islands far to the south off the coast of Africa. It is a tourism entirely build around cheap flights bringing affordable holidays in the sun to millions of European workers. But has it any future on a planet threatened by Climate Change? When I visited Lanzarote in January 2010 I was escaping one of the coldest winters that Ireland had seen in decades, a coldness perhaps created in part by the very mechanism I was using to escape from it.
On the island I went on a guide coach tour of the blasted volcanic landscape that makes up the north of the island, the produce of a decades long eruption over 200 years before. The guide talked constantly through the three hour tour and apart from an introduction to Canarian nationalism he also revealed what conditions were like before the advent of mass tourism. Agriculture on the island was precarious as there is only a brief period of rainfall in winter and some years there will not be enough. The only economic agricultural practice in the modern period is viniculture as in good years the winter rainfall is enough to carry the vines through until harvest time. The tap water on the island is desalinated, an expensive energy demanding process that extracts drinking water from the sea. I didn't see any surface water in the form of rivers or ponds despite being their at the wettest time of year. Manual irrigation isn't really an option.
The vines themselves are dug into pits on the lava ash. When the farmers returned after the eruption they found their fields had been buried. For the lucky ones this was beneath layers of ash rather than hard lava, lucky because in these cases it turned out to be possible to dig through the ash to the fertile soil beneath. The subsequent pit had the advantage of sheltering the vines from the constant wind. By replacing some of the ash on top of the growing plants a very effective mulch that trapped rainfall and made it difficult for weeds to become established was created. According to the guide when you dig down to the soil in June, months after the winter rain, it is often still damp, the ash trapping the moisture for all that time.
The local potato's he told us were very much more expensive then imported varieties, generally twice as much. Much of the stable food on the island seems based around fish and potato and its not hard to imagine how difficult it must have been to get a sufficient crop of potato's that would feed a family through the year from the blasted dry landscape. At the volcanic park somewhere in the region of 100 local families have abandoned agriculture for the most part and instead make their living from offering camel rides to tourists. The guide explained they have a collective system for sharing out the available work and that although this does not make them rich life is very much better than the old days before the tourists came, for the camels as well as the tourists as the camels were previously used to haul building materials around.
There is a tendency for Climate activists to be a little snobby about mass tourism. Millions of workers flying down to the Canaries with their families or friends for days in the sun, nights in the bar and endless Currywursts or Egg & Chips are judged considerably less worthy than a months backpacking around India. But all that aside flying (whether to India or the Canaries) does have a significant impact on climate change.
Airplanes like other forms of transport based on fossil fuels produce CO2. In 1992 it was estimated flight derived CO2 was around 2% of CO2 production that results from human activity (anthropogenic emissions). CO2 in the atmosphere produces a heating effect. High altitude jet airliners cause a greater effect as they try and cruise in the tropopause as planes also release Nitrous Oxides (NOx) which forms Ozone in the upper troposphere. NOx however also breaks down methane (a powerful warning gas) but not at a level that cancels out the NOx warming. Contrails which are formed by the release of water vapor at high altitudes also have a significant effect. Soot and sulfate have in turn a minor heating and cooling effect. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that the actual impact from all these effects is 2-4 times that of the CO2 release alone and that flight is responsible for 3.5% of human caused climate change but that this is likely to rise to 5% by 2050 (and in some scenario's could rise to 15%).
Complaints about mass tourism tend to concentrate on the idea that flights are too cheap, the implication hanging in the air is that only the wealthy should be allowed to travel by taxing flights out of the hands of the rest of us. This attitude is probable one of the greater barriers to building a mass movement around the issue. One study 'Predict and Decide - Aviation, climate change and UK policy' found that a 10% increase in airfares led to a a 5% to 15% reduction in the number of flights taken. One British NGO, the Aviation Environment Federation (AEF), argues for 9 billion in taxes and levies to be put on flying.
There are various counter arguments. Modern planes are more efficient produce and so produce less Co2 and NOx per passenger but these improvements are happening at a lower rate then the growth in passenger numbers. The airlines themselves are engaged in a greenwash campaign, eg Virgin's 2008 flight London to Amsterdam where one engine burned a mixture of coconut oil and babassu oil. No one looking at climate change in a serious manner takes the current technology of biofuels seriously, the actual reductions in CO2 release achieved tend to be miniscule when all energy inputs are taken into consideration. And there is the clear danger of them becoming yet another form of cash crop plantation agriculture that will result in the displacement of millions of people from their land in the global south. It may be that when efficient cellulose digesters are developed that biofuels produced not from edible crops but from waste material will have a role to play but it's less likely this will be in aviation due to the exacting requirements on aviation fuels.
There is also the question of the way tourism has transformed local economies, often for the better. Of course some of the same backpackers are all about the simplicity of life before the arrival of mass tourism and the emptiness of working in some night club or restaurant to serve the tourist hordes but when you look around Lanzarote and imagine what life was like before those jobs became available its not hard to see the flaws in that attitude.
However, at least under current technology, the mass tourism of the Canaries doesn't look like it can last. It is dependent on cheap flights and on mass numbers and it is likely that the era of cheap flights is coming to an end as its squeezed between the end of conventional oil sources on the one hand and the need to tax carbon production on the other. Lanzarote is covered in Irish bars, a reflection I suspect of the level of Irish property speculation as the property boom and cheap credit of the Celtic Tiger years sought cheaper places elsewhere as prices at home sky rocked. From Bulgaria to Croatia to Lanzorate a narrow layer of Irish people became the new absentee landlords as they bought cheap to rent and speculate on rising values. Much of this was built on the assumption of continued cheap mass transport and nowhere is this dependancy greater than on the Canaries, thousands of km of ocean away from everywhere but Morocco.
The islands are really of course African rather than European, some 1000km south of Spain but only 80km off the Moroccan coast (and 100km from the disputed border with the Moroccan occupied Western Sahara). Our guide was having none of that, we are not Moroccan he insisted, the Moroccans killed our fishermen in the 1970's in a dispute about fishing rights. A story that also highlights the precarious nature of life on the island, without fish it would be impossible to find sufficient protein for anything but the tiniest of populations. But the trawler factories of the last decade have surely scraped the seas around the Canaries almost sterile in the same way they have done so to the rest of the oceans of the world. It's quite possible that a return to the grim life before mass tourism is not even possible any more, certainly not for all the two million people that now call the Canaries home.
In the four decades of mass tourism the population of the islands have soared, Grand Canaria is now the home of a million people, over 140,000 live on Lanzarote, over 2 million people live on the islands as a whole. If the tourist economy collapses we can expect most of these to migrate to seek work elsewhere leaving the sprawling towns of villas, apartments and hotels even emptier than if the tourists alone had fled. The climate is such that much of this infrastructure will probably stand for hundreds if not thousands of years until it is slowly buried in the fine dust that from time to time is blown across the ocean from the Sahara. Or perhaps some will vanish much sooner if fresh volcanic eruptions bury the tourist towns in layers of lava or ash with perhaps for a while the upper stories of the taller buildings protruding.
My own perspective on the questions around climate change and flight are as you can probably tell both underdeveloped and contradictory. I like travel and I'm not willing to settle for the solutions that are being advocated that would once more restrict the ability to traveling distances is increasingly a function of wealth. The targeting of mass tourism by some climate change campaigners is I believe a mistake that alienates people rather than bringing them on board. If flights must be rationed (and under current technology that seems to be the case) then lets not use relative wealth as the default rationing system.
The argument instead must be for massive investment in train networks. The highest CO2 production per km is from short range flights, a huge percentage of these could be replaced by city centre to city centre fast trains. In fact having travelled to London via boat and train for the first time in twenty years I was surprised that when all the transit times are taken into account the boat train is only a little slower. But across the world that has been a deliberate run down of almost all rail networks in favor of cars and planes. The situation on North America is worse, outside of some regional routes concentrated in the north east train transport is not an option for traveling from one city to the next and the hub system used for air transport means that getting from A->B can involve twice or more the distance it should.
High speed trains could probably replace a lot of medium distance flights and they only use about 1/8th the energy per passenger as a flight and of course don't release gases or particles into the upper troposphere. And because they can be power by electricity there is the real potential to have at least some of that 1/8th coming from renewable resources. Tackling the Climate Change due to short and medium distance travel by substituting rail for flight would mean greater rather than reduced access to travel. It wouldn't of course help the Canaries but then reducing the number of short and medium distance flights between the major continental cities would perhaps give us the space to continue to have some medium distances flights to the sun to escape the cold dark days of January.