climate change transport

Making it normal not to fly

For over a decade I have lived a mile from an international airport without using it, because I have decided not to fly unless absolutely necessary. I have a lot of conversations about this, and it seems that most people don’t really know about the impact of flying. The industry endlessly repeats the fact that its contribution to total global emissions is in the single figures – 2 to 5%, depending on who you ask.

That makes it sound like a minor thing, which is of course the reason why the industry repeats it. The low figure sticks in people’s brains and is there for easy retrieval when challenged on flying. But if we’re talking about our personal contribution to climate change, global totals are the wrong place to look. The vast majority of the world’s people don’t fly, and that masks how disproportionately damaging it is.

If you fly, aviation will not be 2-5% of your overall footprint. It will be much higher than that. To speak for myself, I’ve worked hard at bringing down my household’s carbon footprint. One return flight to Kenya would double my impact. That single trip would be equivalent to everything else I do for the rest of the year – diet, energy, driving, and shopping all put together.

I am often asked what we can do to reduce our carbon footprint, and top of the list is flying. If it’s something you do, choosing not to fly is likely to be the single biggest lifestyle change you could make to avoid climate disaster.

If you love travel and never setting foot on a plane again sounds like too much to ask, take one less flight this year. Think about it seriously, and see if you can reduce it further next year. (Hint: you can) Investigate non-flying options. British and European readers don’t need to fly to explore widely across the continent – if it wasn’t for Coronavirus, this week my family and I would be returning from Sweden by train.

Perhaps you could commit to not flying for leisure, or taking just one flying holiday a year. If you haven’t got the flying bug yet, commit now to not getting it. Avoid luxuries that will lock you into flying habits, such as buying a holiday home in the south of France, or taking up skiing. If you’re invited to take part in ‘frivolous flying’, such as a weekend city break with friends, or a stag/hen do abroad, maybe you could politely suggest somewhere more local or that’s accessible by train.

Some people have to take a plane to see family, and everyone needs an adventure from time to time. Black and white approaches aren’t necessarily helpful, and I look forward to taking my children on a plane at some point. Maybe there will eventually be sustainable options for long distance plane travel. But until then, the Western middle class entitlement to fly has to be challenged. We all have the right to fly, but that doesn’t make it responsible or wise. It has to become much more normal not to fly.

Flight Free are a campaign that raises awareness of aviation and encourages people to pledge a flight free year. Their new video is a useful summary?

More on aviation.

6 comments

  1. Your video says that ‘More and more people are choosing not to fly for climate reasons.’. But are they? This suggests not: https://www.flightradar24.com/48.45,8.83/5. And EasyJet is operating more flights than planned this summer ‘due to demand exceeding expectations’: https://www.mirror.co.uk/travel/cheap-flights/easyjet-adds-more-flights-summer-22466913.

    But, even if they were in Europe, it would be relatively insignificant when compared with what’s happening elsewhere in the world. The International Air Transport Association has forecast that the number of people travelling by plane will nearly double to 7.8 billion by 2036 – driven by growing and increasingly affluent population in Asia. China for example recently opened what will be the world’s largest airport and is planning to build over 200 new airports by 2035: https://www.travelandleisure.com/airlines-airports/beijing-to-open-worlds-largest-airport and https://simpleflying.com/china-to-build-250-new-airports/ .

    1. More and more people are choosing not to fly because of the climate, that is true. As the title of the blog post alludes however, this is still far from normal and isn’t enough to put a dent in flying statistics – but it has in Sweden, and it may well follow elsewhere.

      Yes, aviation is growing in China and in other developed countries. Access to flying for the first time for an emerging middle class is a different debate to routine flying in developed countries.

      1. Not flying is the ‘old normal’ in much of the developing world. However that’s hardly true of China, South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and other wealthy developing counties. There, and increasingly elsewhere in the developing world (think of India’s huge and expanding middle class for example), flying is becoming the ‘new normal’.

        BTW have you noticed how, after months of blissful silence, Luton Airport is beginning to get busy again?

        1. Yes, though this blog post is about choosing to stop flying. Choosing to never start is for another time.

          Heatwaves are when I most resent Luton Airport, because where we are it isn’t really possible to sleep with the window open because of the noise.

          1. Did you have a look at the ‘flightradar24’ link I posted above? If not, you should. It provides a remarkable picture of what’s happening in commercial aviation over the entire globe – although you can home in on, for example, Luton (not much happening as I write this.)

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