climate change transport

You can either fly or drive

planeGeorge Monbiot’s book Heat: How to stop the planet burning is one of the more comprehensive popular attempts to square our modern lifestyles with the reality of climate change. He describes how the energy system can be made low carbon, how we can change our diets and renovate our houses. To his surprise, he finds that there are answers to every area of modern life except one:

“When I come to examine aviation, I discover that there are simply no effective technological solutions: in this chapter I have failed in my attempt to reconcile the luxuries we enjoy with the survival of the biosphere, and I am forced to conclude that the only possible answer is a massive reduction in flights.”

That’s not welcome news, and most people have chosen to ignore it. I’ve met people who are passionate about reducing their carbon footprint, but insist on their right to fly. It’s particularly tricky when family members live overseas. Nobody wants to be told that they shouldn’t go and visit.

I’ve recently read something that puts a slightly different spin on things. Living Within a Fair Share Ecological Footprint is a book that attempts to define one-planet living and show what life at a truly sustainable level would look like. In the chapter on transport, they analyse the transport habits of residents of Wellington, NZ, as a roughly typical modern Western city. There’s a lot of maths that I won’t share, but essentially they work out that when it comes to transport, a sustainable lifestyle requires us to make a choice.

“It is perfectly possible to have a low enough transport footprint provided that flying is eliminated. There can still be some car use provided that the car is either small or has low fuel consumption.” (They assume that public transport is used for commuting.)

“If all land transport currently done using a car were done by bus with no car use, the travel footprint could accommodate the average amount of flying currently done by a New Zealander. So there is a clear choice: you can drive a car, or you can fly, but it is not possible to do both, unless a way is found to operate aircraft from renewable energy.”

How much flying is that, you may ask. They work it out as one long-haul flight every five years, if you give up the private car entirely and use public transport, walking or cycling for all other transport.

For some, this is going to be an unacceptable choice between the ‘right to fly’ and the ‘right to drive’. Others might recognise that we have a limited right to the earth’s atmosphere too, and be more prepared to work within those limits. Personally, I think this kind of choice is actually quite helpful. Rather than saying ‘you must give up flying’, it gives us a way of working out what we’d need to do to allow it. Conversely, if we couldn’t live without our cars, here’s how that can be accommodated.

How we choose is up to us, and we might want to choose differently according to our stage of life. For example, it might make sense to run a small car for occasional use when children are small, but give up the car when they’re older and take a couple of family adventures. And they would be adventures – if you’re only going to travel once every five years, you’d better take your time and make the most of it.


  1. That’s what we said in our book as well, it simply won’t be possible to fly w/o oil since everything else involves growing something in a field or rather a very large number of fields.

    1. Except solar, no growing involved in solar. Solar can produce hydrogen that could fuel planes or charge high efficiency batteries.

  2. I’m not sure what you are advocating here. Are you suggesting we have restrictions so that we can either fly or drive (some kind of carbon ration), or is this just a guide to those worried about their carbon footprint?

    As an advocate of a carbon tax I’d suggest we put that in place before we move to more coercive methods.

    1. I’m defining the challenge. I don’t know how we get there, to be honest. You obviously can’t just ban flying, and with endless debates over runways everything seems to be heading in the opposite direction. I’ve written about carbon rationing in the past, but only to report on the idea.

      I guess all I’m able to advocate at this stage is that those interested in living sustainably understand that choice and have the courage to make it.

  3. Well, that means we are almost there: we are car free and travel by rail, bus or bicycle to places we can’t walk to, but we fly to Japan to visit family every two years.
    I don’t like flying, to be honest, and we looked at the alternatives (Trans-Siberian, Cabin on container ships) but these take time, so we’d arrive in time for one meal and then have to start travelling home again to get the boys back in time for school term.
    I’ve noticed this before: it is easy to live sustainably, but hard to live sustainably and fulfill the expectation of people living ‘normal’ lives around us.

  4. Dear Make Wealth History, In 2009 I decided to give up flying. I’m studying in London, and until then I had taken on average about three return flights a year. My family live in Spain and France, and I have close friends in Germany. I just want to tell you that the decision to make all my journeys by land started on an ecological notion, but today sustains itself because of the pleasure I have gained. I have taken ferries, trains, buses and bikes, car-pooled and hitchhiked to Eastern Germany, the Netherlands, Strasbourg, Paris, the Mediterranean, Barcelona, Granada, Madrid, Scotland, Wales and around England. Some of the things that I’ve learned: If you want to travel properly, you need the time to do it – but it’s worth it. Travelling in this way means you meet far more people and connect along your journey. You see things gradually change, see towns take shape and trees transform from oak to pine to palm as you go. There’s a deeper satisfaction to this. Most of the travelling I did before now wasn’t travelling at all. It was teleportation, and visiting people. I can talk to these people online, and though it’s hard not seeing them so often, it gives my holidays a real goal to achieve. Somewhat paradoxically, it’s actually made me keep in contact much better with a lot of friends abroad, because when I do come and visit them they appreciate the effort I’ve made to do so – and none of them have actually flown to see me, despite the ease and cheapness that mean they could come for any weekend. I believe the availability of easy transport has mostly taken away a lot of the joy of movement. Travelling by land can (though doesn’t have to) be much more expensive. I don’t know if planes are subsidised, but the biggest strain on these decisions is money. Taking a train down through France costs about 70 more than flying over it (as well as a whole day). On the otherhand I’m young so can get Interrail passes, and have the energy to hitchhike (I made it to Barcelona and back for about 40 including tube tickets and a stop in Paris). It’s important to get the raw information out there, but it’s also important to discuss how lifestyle change doesn’t necessarily mean making your life less fun. I know I have a lot of advantages others don’t, but within what I’ve done I think there’s something for everyone – if you’re not a cyclist, car-pooling around the UK or to France or BeNeLux is very easy and not expensive, for just one example. There’s been a lot of hard work in getting around, but it’s been very worth it. Best wishes,NicolsDate: Tue, 21 May 2013 12:00:58 +0000 To:

    1. Thanks! Nice to hear from someone who’s put it into practice. I agree, traveling more slowly makes the journey into part of the experience, rather than an inconvenience at the beginning and end of a holiday.

  5. I appreciate all the points made here, and people’s personal commitment to not fly, yet think there is some ground somewhere in between of not flying, ever, (which kind of sucks if you live on an island like Australia with no rail link to anywhere close, like I do), and flying willy-nilly and carelessly. Case in point: Australia should have, years ago, built a fast train between Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra – this is one of the busiest air routes in the world, and it is do-able by train IF we had a system like Europe and Japan.

    Flying’s NOT a fun thing long-haul, and is an investment of $1500-2000 plus anywhere between 10-25 hours in one direction for Australians to get most places, so its not something we do lightly – although by virtue of tyranny of distance, we do fly a lot.

    Slow travel would be lovely – if we had more than four week’s leave a year from needing to be at work, which just isn’t an option for most people. If we all agreed to this, it means going anywhere to explore the world – for ANY reason – becomes the preserve of those with the means (again).

    Re: ground transport – I don’t *want* to lose 1.5 hours out of my day five days a week getting to and from work (combination of car and transit), but I live in a sprawled, car dependent city that grew up post WW2 shaped by the car. Individual choices are absolutely shaped by where you live, how dense things are, how frequent and safe transit is – losing your license here is tantamount to losing your job for many people, which says a lot about the alternatives. Reshaping this means relocalising the work opportunities and services so people don’t have to travel so much to access them.

    As per my take on this here: it’s not just flying or transport we need to consider, as the impact of the IT industry globally is around the same as aviation. If we’re going to sacrifice flying, why not sacrifice using the internet? Because both are useful and contribute to our experience of life! In my article I looked at a number of examples where we are wasting energy in the most abhorrent ways, yet we’re perhaps focusing on flying as a more visible activity.

    Why are we not focusing on the wasteful use of energy, like boomerang trade, which offers not very much value? If we ground ourselves without tackling this, we have prioritised waste – WASTE! – over reconnection with loved ones and friends, and travel for learning or pleasure. That’s a hard sell. I don’t know if we could stay under 350ppm if we cut all this waste and everyone was allowed a flight every two years, or traded their right to with someone else who needed it, but these are some numbers I’d like to see crunched.

    Overall, I think we can get a little too hung up on the energy cost of flying (one of many human activities), and a carbon view of the world in general, which can then easily deteriorate into one-upmanship of carbon sins – what we eat (witness debates between vegetarians and carnivores!), how many kids we have etc. Once you set up this dynamic, you can end up with this scenario: I don’t have any children – I enjoy (mindful, occasional) travel. Do I get to travel in lieu of procreating? If I have to do my bit by not travelling (my passion), are others prepared to do their bit by not procreating?

    Vexed questions! And of course the planet doesn’t care. It just wants a reasonable level of ppm. But I think we need a more nuanced approach as to how to do that fairly than all flying = always bad, or you can drive if you don’t fly or vice versa.

    1. This is why a carbon tax or a cap and trade system is such a good idea. Then we can make decisions about the trade-offs we need to make. Flying may be one of those essential things that we are prepared to pay for and encourage deeper cuts in other areas where it can be done so more cheaply and with less disruption. It also allows us to make calculations as to the relative cost of certain carbon cuts verses the cost of adjusting for climate change.

      I believe Australia is starting out on the Carbon Tax route, good luck!

    2. All good points, and of course we all have to make our own choices. The point is just that if we want to live within a one-planet share, that’s one of the many hard choices we need to make. We can choose to fly and drive, but then a one-planet share will elude us. That’s just the mathematical reality of it, and I can’t point the finger at anyone – I’m not living within a equal share either, and won’t be able to as long as I have to commute into London.

      Ultimately, what this shows is that individual actions are not enough to make a real difference. We need governments to organise decent public transport and rail networks. We need cultural change to allow us longer holidays or sabbaticals. And we need technology too – I’m sure we’ll get a sustainable way to travel distances eventually, since there is always going to be demand.

      Not sure about the comparison to the internet. Yes, the energy use is the same, but it’s used by a whole lot more people. Only a small minority of the world’s population fly, so it has a much bigger impact per capita.

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