To fly or not to fly

Small steps…

  • Recognise the true cost of a plane ticket beyond the purely financial.
  • Wherever possible, swap the plane for a train.
  • Protest against any airport expansion until the current infrastructure is carbon-neutral and running at capacity.
  • Encourage businesses to reduce flights and offset.
  • Don’t be a frequent flyer but, if you have to go by plane, go economy, fly direct and offset your flights. And make your trip count.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is air-travel-nathan-nelson.png
Red sky in the morning…
(photo by Nathan Nelson)

Scientists tell us that, along with eating less meat and dairy, the biggest step we can take to reduce our personal contributions to climate change is to stop flying. Unfortunately, though, having agreed to move to Scotland from the sunnier south, my wife reckons that at least one week of sunshine a year was in the small print. And apparently our recent climate-warming-induced, scorching Scottish summers just won’t hack it.

The problem, of course, is that aeroplanes burn a huge amount of fossil fuel. Just one return economy flight from London to Hong Kong spits out 1/4 of the average UK person’s already oversized carbon footprint for a whole year – and at a height in the atmosphere that exacerbates the detrimental impact.

Direct emissions from aviation account for more than 2% of our global emissions. If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters.

The European Commission, ‘Reducing emissions from aviation’

But despite the UK Government’s legal obligations to reduce emissions, the aviation industry is only growing, encouraged by generous subsidies including the waiving of VAT on plane tickets and duty on commercial aviation fuel. At the same time the Government is failing our railways while seeking to expand airports, aiming to solve congestion not by reducing flights but by increasing capacity.

In other words, given that Government policy is making the situation worse and that the industry won’t curb itself, it’s up to each of us as individuals to consider whether our moral obligation to the planet and to future generations is sufficient to guide our actions.

Technology isn’t going to save us. The strongest contenders – from carbon capture and storage (CCS) to synthetic or biofuels – are still decades away. And all the recent advances in aeroplane efficiency and air traffic management are dwarfed by the continuing growth.

By 2020, global international aviation emissions are projected to be around 70% higher than in 2005.

The European Commission, ibid.

So what to do?

We could choose to not fly at all. Many have already committed to exactly that, an impressive example of living values. But while admirable, I’m not sure it’s realistic in the long term. Not when your wife’s moaning about the incessant drizzle and making a point of pumping your kids full of vitamin D supplements.

Besides, what about those forced to fly for work? While climate concerns have pushed some to change jobs, not everyone has that flexibility. Nor can they negotiate the extra time or money needed from their employers to take the train. Fortunately, though, while there’s still plenty of room for improvement, business flights by UK residents are actually in decline and represent a minority of our air travellers.

Then there are those who’ve moved abroad in expectation of regularly flying back to see friends and family. They’ll be inescapably hit by any reduction in flights, and their expectations will have to shift as we all learn to live within realistic bounds. But again, thankfully, those flying for so-called ‘love miles’ are also a minority.

By far the biggest contributors to aviation emissions are holiday flights. Yet while the whole planet pays the price, it’s actually only 15% of us who take 70% of all flights.

Can it be right that someone flying off to their Tuscan holiday home for the fifth time this year is subsidised (by the planet and the taxpayer) the same as someone saving for years for a single flight to visit family abroad? Until the price of a plane ticket actually factors in the full environmental cost, a frequent flyer levy is surely worth considering; since so many of us recognise only the financial costs of our actions, hitting the wallet would have the most direct impact.

But if we need to consider the real price of flying, we should also consider the real gains: the value of your trip should also be factored into your decision to fly. If you’re flying for work that helps even in some small way to better the world, that’s surely infinitely more justifiable than any short-haul journey that could have been taken by train. So what justification is there for a week in the sun just because you’re fed up with the wet Scottish weather? Is that enough of a reason for us to fly abroad this year?

The answer is that, after surprisingly little negotiation, we’re breaking the habit of the last few years and taking a domestic summer holiday. That’s not to say we’ve given up flying, just that we’re trying to reduce the number of flights we take.

And when the pressure for foreign sunshine comes round again, there are steps we can take along with everyone else to reduce the impact of flying, from booking economy to going direct from our local airport. We can also offset. There’s a debate about how effective the offsetting industry really is – and it’s never going to beat not taking the flight in the first place – but it can be a surprisingly inexpensive way of at least countering the emissions, adding only around £4 to a return trip from the UK to Spain, or less than £20 to a return economy flight from London to Hong Kong. Yet still – how’s this for depressing? – less than 1% of flyers choose to offset.

In past years, it was my willing ignorance that allowed me to fly. At no point was it necessary for work, nor did I ever consider the true cost. But I can’t claim ignorance now. Surely none of us can, not when the world’s scientists have been clear: we all need to make ‘rapid, unprecedented change’ to our lifestyles – precisely the opposite of the ‘business-as-usual’ approach that so many are clinging to.

The fact is that we all need to restrict ourselves in some way. And that might mean cutting back on what – only in recent decades – we’ve come to view as an entitlement. But restriction needn’t be negative. There are still plenty of corners to explore closer to home, and many billions throughout history have died quite content without ever stepping foot on an aircraft. And many who’ve sworn off flying, far from finding it a sacrifice, have discovered that, by rethinking what they’re going away for and making their journey part of the holiday, their lives and their travel have become all the richer for it.

Here’s hoping that’ll work for us this summer. I realise, of course, that sitting for hours on the M1 is unlikely to appease my wife’s demand for sunshine. But on the bright side, with the money we’ll save I can order an industrial supply of Vitamin D.

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