We know flying is bad for the environment, but is it really that bad?
Yesterday I wrote an article on Medium here examining that question.
It was part of my attempt to explore some of the travel conundrums we face and better understand my impact as a traveller. In fact, I had made a new year’s resolutions to be more aware of the impact I have – as a traveller, tourist, friend and partner – and it has spurred a desire to write a full-on ethical travel guide.
But the embarrassing reality is that for the past two years, at least, I’ve taken more than 50 flights a year.
While I’m not a corporate type who flies first-class back and forward to New York every other day – I’m pretty much up there amongst the rankings of environmental bad guys.
London’s climate protests and a slew of UN reports confirming humans’ contribution to mass extinction has brought this into ever clearer focus.
I’ve often been guilty of downplaying the impact of flying – a completely self-interested contention – to the point that I’d probably make a good lobbyist for the aviation industry.
My reasoning revolved around three main points.
- Other industries are worse – Aviation accounts for around 2% of global emissions. In contrast, power generation and agribusiness are far more polluting. So, if we really want to make a change to global emissions, we should probably focus on these industries. Even still, I was shocked to learn how much carbon one long haul flight emits. It is about 4 tonnes of carbon (a return to New York is 1 ton, a return to Sydney is 5 tonnes). By comparison the average Brit emits 8.5 tonnes of carbon PER YEAR!
- Other forms of transport are worse (though of course, many are better)– Large cars emit far more carbon per person per kilometre than flying. I was also particularly smug to find out that cruising (which I don’t do, at least not yet) is by far the worst of a bad bunch, emitting at least 2.5 times more than air transport. And that is before taking into consideration the other marine environmental damage they do.
- Many places rely on the tourism, and they tend to be far away – Tourism is a legitimate economic development activity, and a lot of developing countries and emerging markets rely on it for jobs and growth. If we didn’t visit these places, it would be bad for people there. The irony is that the ten most tourism-reliant places are also some of the most vulnerable to climate change – like the small island nations like the Maldives, British Virgin Islands and Aruba. So I get it, these places need to be there in the first place for us to visit…
Why the the denial?
Upon reflection my propensity to down play the impact of flying comes from a number of places:
- The ‘usual’ argument about climate change – why should I change my behaviour if no one else is willing to do so?
- The fact that I really like my life; and
- A deep frustration that the people who have the means to do something about this aren’t.
Space exploration vs save the planet
Taking this last point first.
Space travel and exploration has become the next frontier of commercial exploitation. I get it. With little left to discover on the earth, how do you become the next Alexander von Humboldt or Sir Edmund Hillary? Space, of course. That’s why it seems to me like every billionaire is developing his own space travel programme and why governments have started ploughing money back into a 21st century space race.
I actually feel offended by attempts to create colonies on Mars or find another planet like ours before solving our problems here first. We will only end up exporting these problems there, if don’t do something about them here first!
Changing our lifestyles is hard
Taking my first and second points together. I understand that to have an impact we all need to make quite radical changes to the way we live.
And that is hard.
I do know people who very rarely fly – as a choice. I was listening to a climate change researcher talk about his approach to overseas travel – a train to China and a boat to Iceland for conferences. He dismissed his colleagues’ protestations that this isn’t practical for everyone – but that’s rubbish. It isn’t!
We live an incredibly fast paced world. To enable the type of travel where we take longer to get there and stay longer will require a complete shift in value sets, workplace expectations and behaviours.
And air travel is actually increasingly – particularly in fast growing emerging markets. That is unsurprising. As people have more disposable income they will use it on leisure pursuits, which include travelling.
The advent of technology was meant to make our lives easier. Advances in telecommunications have been continually hailed for their potential to end the need for city living and transcontinental travel. But the reality is however good these communications technologies get there will always be a real human need to look someone in the eye. To experience for yourself – or as politicians like to say “I’ve seen for myself, first hand.” These interaction are incredibly enriching.
From a personal point of view, I’m not sure my husband would be too keen on my being away for the time it took to take the train to and from China, and stay there for at least two weeks. Time away from family in this new world order would be a real concern.
I would be delighted to be proven wrong – but in the meantime it means we need to find an alternative to ‘don’t travel’.
Some practical advice
In the meantime, I’ve tried to collect some practical advice:
- Fly less.
- Choose alternative forms of travel for short journeys – trains are one of the best!
- Choose one long haul over multiple short haul flights.
- Fly economy. It has less impact per passenger than business or first class.
- Stay longer and go to places where your impact is more beneficial to the local economy…
This is nowhere near a comprehensive set of advice, and I’m sure it raises further questions, but for me it’s a start.
And for governments…
It will take a huge change in my lifestyle – and everyone else’s – to make a difference. And as we’ve discovered that’s hard.
This is where governments and the global community can come in.
I would love to explore these ideas in greater depth, but as a starting point can we please invest more in green technologies – in improving power generation, industrial production and the aviation industry. It will take great political and corporate leadership to divert resources and attention into serious support for new technologies away from existing interests, but we need it.
I’ve also recently heard about a proposal for a carbon trading scheme for air travel – where citizens are given a yearly flight/carbon emission allowance and can sell or buy more as required. I would love to know more about this and whether it is practically implementable. My initial reaction is that this would have to be a global scheme to fully capture the benefits. Otherwise, as an example, I can fly to Thailand on my one credit, then use any of the low-cost airlines in Asia as frequently as I want because I’m out of UK jurisdiction.
I think there is a really important element of equity that also needs to be explored with any type of carbon trading scheme. Any scheme like this has the potential to cement inequality of opportunity between rich and poor, both within and between countries.
Finally, there should be more support for countries that can’t afford to develop and implement climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies — taking into account tourism dependencies. Help them to develop alternative sustainable livelihood strategies.
So it was last weekend that I felt rather smug for taking the Eurostar to Paris.
It was comfortable. It was quick. It was easy. Crucially it didn’t cost more than flying (due to the last minute nature of our booking) and only 10 mins from my house.
I know this doesn’t make up for the 50 other flights I’ve taken this year. But it is a start. It was a genuine choice not to fly but take the train.
This article and the Medium one are an attempt to dissect and challenge my own preconceptions – and better understand my constant need to feed my flying and travel habit.
I agree with the climate campaigners – we need to be more ambitious and radically change in the way we live – but it that practical? I understand, at the same time, that many would argue we’re not in the realm of practical any more and nothing but a full scale stop of travel will make any difference.
So, I’d be interested to hear from you. Have you radically changed the way you travel?