BTN Europe: We have a serious challenge on our hands to reduce carbon emissions globally and aviation has a big role to play in that. Where are we on that journey?
Mike Berners-Lee: Aviation’s at a real crunch point because we don’t know how to solve this problem. The industry is also growing. Pandemic aside, global flights were rising every year. We are seeing some technology gains – more efficient aircraft – but they are getting eaten up by people flying more. There’s no getting around the need to be more careful about when we fly and when we don't. Nobody is saying ‘no flying’, but I think there is just a hard reality that we don't know how to put a big passenger airline up in the air on a long-haul flight without burning through something in the order of 100 tons of aviation fuel which turns itself into over three times its weight in carbon dioxide.
Climate change is a reality and it [aviation] is one of the hardest to reach sectors. It's probably the hardest to reach sector in the whole global economy. It doesn't mean to say that none of us can go on holiday and it doesn't mean to say that none of us can go on business flights, but it does mean we need to be more careful about when we decide to go.
The global aviation industry is often cited as being responsible for around two per cent of all carbon emissions. Is that accurate?
MBL: I think it’s usually underestimated by about a factor of two because those estimates don’t take account of the additional impact that emissions have at high altitude. Defra, for example, in company reporting usually advocates a mark-up factor of 1.9, so that’s almost double. And if you look at some countries it’s bigger again. In the UK we’re surrounded by sea so we fly a lot. If you take a consumption-based approach to the carbon footprint of the UK population, my estimate is more like eight per cent, but it's more like four or five per cent of global emissions.
Do you think corporates are waking up to their environmental responsibilities?
MBL: I think people have realised that there are more situations when it really does work out better to have a virtual meeting. You save a lot of time, you save quite a bit of money, and potentially you can have five or six videoconferences in less time than it takes to have one face-to-face meeting. But there are some situations where that's not going to work and you've just got to be there in person, on the factory floor, or whatever. It's just a case of scrutinising a little more stringently whether we should fly or do things virtually. There’s no getting round it – it’s a huge issue for the travel industry.