Can We Justify Flying in an Age of Climate Breakdown?

flying in an age of climate breakdown

With international travel coming to a halt during the pandemic (or at least becoming cumbersome and prone to cancellation), I’ve been waiting patiently for the time when I can hop on a plane again and go on some trips that I’ve been planning.

Before the pandemic struck, I had a flight booked to the island of Crete in Greece. I have since rebooked it twice, during times when restrictions eased and travelling became feasible, and then, as has become commonplace, restrictions were put in place again following rising cases of the virus. 

With the trip approaching, the necessity of tests and the ever-changing situation with COVID-19 here and in Greece make travelling abroad additionally stressful, expensive, and unpredictable. It didn’t seem worth it. A bigger barrier to going, however, was the question of the environmental cost: I kept reading about – and being unable to ignore and rationalise away – the ecological damage of holiday flights.

I felt very close to making a decision to give up flying. Then the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its latest report on climate change. Its conclusions were stark and alarming. Some major climate changes are inevitable and irreversible (so why give up flying then, what difference will it make?) while calls were made to achieve rapid and drastic reductions in greenhouse gases to prevent widespread ecological damage and extreme weather events (which is why serious reductions in flying matter).

Since the publication of the report, the media and environmental campaigners and groups reiterated the essential lifestyle changes the public can make to reduce their personal emissions, including reducing or giving up flying. Other changes include eating less meat or giving it up entirely, wasting less food, driving less or not at all, and having one fewer child. Change has to take place at a policy level as well; that’s clear. It’s all well and good individuals making substantial and effective lifestyle changes that benefit the environment, but we cannot rely on these changes happening quick enough to alter the ruinous trajectory that we’re on. We also need to put pressure on our policymakers.

That said, a lack of adequate intergovernmental action does not mean that individual change is futile. The impacts are real and measurable. So with that in mind, just how damaging is flying? To put the level of emissions in perspective, going vegan removes around 0.8 tonnes of CO2 from your annual output every year, whereas taking just a single flight could add that amount in one go (for instance, a return flight from London to Gran Canaria will release 0.9 tonnes of CO2 per passenger). 

The IPCC recommends that each person’s carbon footprint should not exceed 2.3 tonnes if we want to limit global warming to 1.5°C (warming higher than this increases the risks of devastating effects, such as homes lost to rising seas, water scarcity, and species loss). You could use up this allowance by taking several short-haul and medium-haul flights each year or just a single long-haul flight (for example, a return flight from London to Perth would generate over 3 tonnes of CO2; again, per passenger). 

An international train, meanwhile, creates only a small fraction of the emissions seen with flying. As a case in point, travelling by Eurostar creates 6 g of CO2 emissions per kilometre travelled per passenger, whereas a domestic flight, with the same parameters applying, emits 133 g while for a long-haul flight the figure is 102 g. Getting on a train, coach, or ferry (as a foot passenger) is a far more environmentally-friendly way to travel compared to flying or driving, with walking and cycling being even greener.

Also, flying is associated with significant non-CO2 effects, arising from aircraft engine emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx), soot particles, oxidised sulphur, and water vapour. And unlike CO2, which remains in the atmosphere for centuries, non-CO2 emissions have a short-term but strong warming effect, potentially tripling the overall warming effect of aviation compared to CO2 alone. The impact of not flying, then, is larger than the reduction in CO2 alone. Sally Cairns, a transport policy researcher at the University of Leeds, says “The shortest-term effect [of flying], and one of the biggest effects, is the formation of contrails, which are the white lines you see in the sky and the associated formation of cirrus clouds.” Soot and water vapour from the plane’s engine create these contrails, so they are ultimately responsible for the climate-warming cirrus clouds that form as a result.

When I read the conclusions of the IPCC’s latest report and considered these sorts of facts about aviation, the idea of giving up flying then turned into a decision to do so. Based on the reality of climate breakdown, with all the harmful changes in the world’s weather entailed by it, I felt I could no longer really justify flying. Compared to other modes of transport, flying is convenient, time-saving, and affordable; it makes it possible to visit far-flung, enticing places (for me personally, Latin America) that, if travelling by land or sea, would be so time-consuming, inconvenient, and expensive that such trips would become highly impractical and unlikely to happen. 

However, the benefits of flying over travelling by train, coach, ferry, and ship do not, for me, outweigh the costs to the atmosphere and subsequent effects from that damage. To fly in an age of climate breakdown for more convenient and preferable travel has started to seem difficult to justify. In an emergency, I think the justification is easily made. But to not fly doesn’t even mean giving up travel, whether domestic or international – and long-distance travel to other continents is certainly still possible, even if it won’t be as easy and frequent.

Moreover, there are benefits to travelling overland that you miss out on when you fly. These include avoiding airports and jetlag, enjoying the scenery as you travel, spending longer in a country, visiting multiple and new countries along the way, and interacting with locals more often. 

Part of me feels that giving up flying is a sacrifice since it means certain long-distance trips may be put on hold for a while or never even happen (unless long-haul flights become sustainable in the future). Electric planes could take to the skies by 2030, with Airbus planning to launch zero-emission, hydrogen planes by the 2030s as well, but these will be restricted to short-haul flights. Electric planes, for example, are not expected to fly more than 1,000 km (about the distance between London and Berlin). Although improvements in battery technology may change this. Nonetheless, Airbus does hope to extend its hydrogen-powered flights to long-haul flights by 2050, by which time I’ll be 60. So I look forward to that time! If that technology even materialises.

I, like many other people, have wondered whether giving up flying will really make a difference. If the aviation industry contributes to only 2.5% of global CO2 emissions and about 3.5% of human-caused global warming, then giving up flying doesn’t seem that impactful. But it’s important to bear in mind that this is not because emissions from aviation are low but because, globally, very few people fly. Less than 20% of the world’s population has ever been on a plane. The emissions produced by aviation vary by country; in the UK, where I’m from, aviation accounts for around 8% of the country’s CO2 emissions.

For Westerners like myself who are used to flying (and flying frequently), flights make up a large part of our carbon footprints; and they often take our carbon footprints far beyond the quota set forth by the IPCC. In the UK, where people fly a lot, the average carbon footprint of each person per year is 15.5 tonnes. To drastically reduce this level of emissions is therefore crucial, and not flying is one of the most effective ways to achieve this.

Regarding the apparent futility of individual change in the face of global reliance on fossil fuels, individual actions can (and do) influence systemic change, especially when we act together. Governments and industries respond to public opinion and consumer behaviour. By demonstrating we don’t want to fly, we can influence policy decisions, such as taxing aviation (currently airlines don’t have to pay tax on fuel, which allows them to sell cheap flights) and making alternative forms of travel more affordable. The problem is that flights are not taxed fairly and rail travel lacks the government support that the aviation sector receives. If things were reversed, it would be easier to opt for low-carbon transport. PhD researcher Steve Westlake has found through his research that “doing something bold like giving up flying can have a wider knock-on effect by influencing others and shifting what’s viewed as “normal”.” This kind of social and cultural change is essential for systemic change.

I recently received an email from Jack’s Flight Club, which sends subscribers the best deals on flights – another email list I’ve forgotten to unsubscribe from – and I saw a return flight from London to Zagreb, Croatia with Ryanair costing only £9! To travel to Croatia by train would cost, on the other hand, several hundred pounds. With massive price differences like this, practicalities aside, there is little incentive for people not to fly, especially since the cost of rail travel is simply unaffordable for many people.

I used to think that carbon offsetting could offset the guilt I would feel from flying. But a joint investigation by The Guardian and Greenpeace’s Unearthed found that offsetting can’t make flying ‘carbon neutral’. Firstly, carbon offsetting schemes often don’t absorb the necessary carbon; secondly, carbon emissions damage the environment regardless of whether or not carbon is later absorbed through the offsetting project (e.g. planting trees); and thirdly, most of these schemes rely on future carbon absorption, like planting trees, the benefits of which may not appear for decades, whereas we need to reduce carbon emissions immediately and urgently. Britaldo Silveira Soares Filho, a professor and expert in deforestation modelling, said, “It’s a scam. Neither planting trees nor avoiding deforestation will make a flight carbon neutral.”

I have also held onto the comforting belief that the plane will take off anyway, so there’s no point in me not flying. Nevertheless, flights work on a supply and demand basis. True, in the short-term, my decision not to take a flight might not ground that particular plane, but in the longer term, lower demand does lead to less supply. The more people who reduce their flying or refuse to fly and choose other means of travel, the more change we will see in the transport sector. Where the logic of ‘the plane will fly anyway’ does apply is in the case of traversing the ocean on cargo ships. Lewis McNeil, a project manager for the charity the Orchard Project, who has travelled by cargo ship from France to Trinidad, told The Guardian:

The idea behind this is that you’re piggybacking on emissions that are already going to be emitted – that cargo ship, as unsustainable as it is with our crazy trade system, is going anyway. With flying, flights depend on demand.

There is then the concern that not flying will affect global tourism and all the benefits associated with that, like stimulating local economies, especially in poorer and tourism-reliant countries. However, you can still support international tourism without flying, many countries actually suffer from over-tourism, and countries’ own tourism industry may be struggling, which should incentivise us to support local tourism.

In terms of my flight to Greece, I was lucky (in one sense) since there was a disruption to the flight, meaning the dates changed, making a refund an option. So that’s what I chose, rather than just changing the dates to some hopeful time when international travel returned to normal. I was looking forward to the trip, but given what I was learning about the effect of flying on the climate, I think the discomfort of that knowledge would take away from the enjoyment of travelling. Is travelling to a specific country over my own or ones easier to visit really worth the damage from flying? 

I’ve travelled a lot, which is an extremely lucky position to be in, and I’m grateful for those experiences. But this has meant taking a lot of fights, and producing a lot of harmful emissions; so I might feel differently about not flying if that wasn’t the case. Although it’s hard to say. My decision might be the same – or I at least might strive to fly a lot less – if the same information was presented to me. In any case, going flight-free does still, on the one hand, feel like a difficult decision and a major change. Visiting other countries and experiencing different cultures hasn’t shrunk my travel desires; it’s expanded them. I still have a strong urge to explore certain continents and countries, and I see a lot of value in that, in terms of how those experiences enrich my life, as well as benefit local economies.

On the other hand, the environmental cost of flying in order to facilitate this kind of travel is unignorable. I’m not saying that it’s unjustified for anyone to travel for a reason other than an emergency. For young people with little travel experience or someone desperate for international travel but unable to choose a train over a plane (i.e. due to time and/or financial constraints), then flying may feel worth it. Furthermore, sometimes flying is part of one’s current job or necessary when starting a new job abroad. And for those who have moved to a country far away from home, visiting friends and relatives by rail and cargo ship may just not be feasible.

If the IPCC recommends we make sure our carbon footprint is 2.3 tonnes a year, then flying may not, when combined with other activities and behaviours, take you over this allocation. This, of course, depends on the flight, how often you fly, and your carbon footprint from other activities. Not every country is, per capita, a high carbon emitter. The average carbon footprint per person is 4.8 tonnes, which is more than double the IPCC’s allocated limit; but some countries have extremely large carbon footprints per capita (e.g. the United States: 16 tonnes) while for other countries this figure is much lower (e.g. several African countries emit less than half a tonne of CO2 per person each year; in fact, taking a very short return flight – London to Edinburgh, for example – can contribute more CO2 than what an individual in Uganda or Somalia would create in a year). Bhutan is even carbon-negative.

Hence, I am not convinced that flying infrequently and with deliberation is incompatible with an environmental ethic; that is, trying to live a lifestyle deemed sustainable by climate change experts. If you live in a country with a low carbon footprint or you adopt a low-carbon lifestyle, deciding to take a flight may not be a careless thing to do. This is why I am not categorically opposed to flying. In an age of climate breakdown, consciously cutting down on our air travel – flying rarely, ideally – is the minimum we should aim for. Yet given the scale of the existential threat we’re facing and the amount of emissions that a single flight (irrespective of distance flown) will generate, choosing not to fly appears to be an imperative for many. It is a highly impactful decision, after all.

Travelling can lead to life-changing, perspective-shifting experiences, as well as improve well-being by encouraging us to get out of our comfort zone, be in nature, and enjoy our immediate surroundings, free from the stresses of modern working life. Some of us also just have a travel itch that needs to be scratched, and which is best scratched by the places, landscapes, and cultures that are most novel to us. But none of this means that flying is necessary or justified. We can reap these rewards of travel through slower modes of transport, which, in the end, could offer experiences that might otherwise have passed us by.

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