Should the Government Really Be Lauding New Flights to China?

Andy Storey

Andy Storey is a lecturer in political economy at University College Dublin and a board member of human rights group Action from Ireland (Afri).


Dublin is about to get direct flight connections with China. From June, Hainan Airlines (China’s largest private operator) will fly Dublin-Beijing four times a week, albeit with two of those four flights stopping off in Edinburgh.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific is going to initiate four direct flights a week between Dublin and Hong Kong. That service also starts in June.

Announcing the Hainan flights while in Beijing in March, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney lauded the boost it would likely give to trade and tourism between the two countries.

Nobody doubts that both leisure and business travelers will be convenienced by the new routes, and that others who might not have travelled at all will now be tempted to make the journey.

As someone whose two work trips to China involved stopovers (both pleasant enough, but inevitably a bit of a hassle) in Dubai and Helsinki, I have to admit the appeal of a non-stop journey is considerable (and yes, I will come back to the obvious gap between my words and actions later).

But here’s a question: should my convenience be placed above other considerations? Specifically, what will the new services mean for climate change? And how are such initiatives compatible with Ireland’s stated commitments to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions?

The contribution of air travel to global warming is both significant and undeniable, whatever claptrap Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary comes out with. As a New York Times report from last year put it, “If you’re flying, you’re adding a significant amount of planet-warming gases to the atmosphere — there’s no way around it.”

Hainan will use Airbus A330 aircraft on the new routes, and an aircraft enthusiast I know says these are less polluting than earlier generations of planes (with Cathay Pacific’s A350s even better in that respect).

But that would only represent an environmental gain if an existing journey (with a dirtier aircraft) was being replaced, whereas the whole point about these Dublin-China services is that significant new traffic is to be generated.

Ireland’s record on climate change is already dismal, in fact it is the worst in Europe by some measures. And sometimes the need to tackle this seems to penetrate aspects of public policy.

For example, the cost-benefit analysis of the proposed new Dublin metro (which, by the way, is a dodgy project for other reasons that I may come back to in a later column) at least factors in the environmental benefits of switching people from private car use to public transport.

But when it comes to international (as opposed to national) travel, it is as if any consideration of the environment simply flies out the window. When Minister Coveney says that the new routes have “massive potential to expand both tourism and business between Ireland and China”, this is reported as a seemingly uncomplicated and unambiguous good thing, regardless of what it helps do to the very sustainability of life on earth.

I should fly less myself, I know, if I am to avoid the inevitable charge of hypocrisy. But the issue I am focusing on here is the incentive structure created by public policy: if we even partially accept that we should take the environment into account in our national planning, then why do we not extend that to our international decision-making?

And of course we can have a debate about this: maybe the benefits of greater trade and tourism between Ireland and China can be argued to outweigh the environmental downsides. But can we start by acknowledging that there is, at the very least, a debate that needs to be had here?

(This column was both suggested and informed by my friend Michael Holmes, whose plane-spotting obsessions have finally proven good for something.)

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