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A Champion for Earth

Listen to our podcast interview with Etienne Stott, gold medal-winning canoeist and environmental activist

FlightFree UK
29 Jul 6 min read

We interview Etienne Stott, Olympian and gold medallist in the London 2012 Olympics. Since retiring from the sport he’s become very involved in environmental activism, especially with Extinction Rebellion. Etienne has signed our flight free 2020 pledge, partly as a way to reduce his own carbon footprint, but also as a symbolic act which encourages people to think about their travel choices.

We meet at Green’s Mill in Sneinton, Nottingham.

The interview is available as a podcast, with an edited transcript below.

Hi Etienne – nice to meet you! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Etienne: I won a gold medal in the white water slalom in London 2012 with my team mate Tim Baillie. I had a really long career as an athlete, from around 10 or 11 years old to retiring after the Rio cycle in 2016 when I was 37. Since retiring I’ve been learning about the climate emergency and the situation we’re facing, and what I can do to act accordingly.

And that’s led you to sign our flight free pledge – thank you! Can you tell us why you support the pledge?

Etienne: I’ve signed because it’s a good way to take massive chunks out of my carbon footprint. Learning about your carbon footprint and how to reduce it is really interesting, for example by going more plant-based with your diet, changing how much you drive and how much you consume. Choosing not to fly can be one single decision that can take a massive lump out of your footprint. So for me it’s a practical step that reduces my impact on the world and reduces my contribution to runaway climate change. It makes me feel good that I’m acting according to my beliefs.

It’s also a symbolic act. As someone with a modest public platform, I can add some weight to this argument, that we should be talking about the impact of aviation. We don’t talk about it enough as it's a bit of a sacred cow, a taboo subject, but I’m engaging with this question and hoping others will do the same.

We are asking 100,000 to sign the pledge, so it’s a collective action rather than one person feeling that they can’t make a difference. What do you think we need to do to reach the 100,000?

Etienne: I think it’s a really nice idea, because people could say, you stopping flying doesn’t make a difference, but if we get 100,000 that’s a significant number, and perhaps in the future we can get more than 100,000. So it’s a powerful thing to be involved in and I’m happy to contribute to the 100,000. I think we’ll reach people by being a bit bolder. It is challenging, and it’s a challenge for me to explain to people in a compassionate and understanding way that my choices might be different, and why. And explaining to people so they understand, then trust them to act in a way they see fit.

Something that we’re really keen to show is that this is not a sacrifice, it’s not saying don’t go on holiday – just perhaps travel closer to home or choose different means. But for you it is a sacrifice because you have family and friends in Canada.

Etienne: yes, my mum is French-Canadian and half my family lives in Canada, and my best friend and crew mate Tim who I won the Olympics with lives on the other side of Canada, in Vancouver. I have to wrestle with this because I know that when I fly to see these people that I care deeply about I am partly affecting their future. I believe the future that awaits them if we don’t take these steps will be very destabilised, dangerous and unpleasant.

And it goes further – these beautiful places that we go to visit are becoming damaged because we fly to see them. This is a tough reality. So there is a sacrifice element here – I’m not saying I’m never going to fly again, but at this point, it’s very doable to not fly for a year. Britain is a beautiful place – we have Scotland, the Peak District and the Lake District, Devon, and loads of other places. So I don’t feel I need to travel somewhere that’s thousands of miles away to satisfy my urge to roam – I can even go somewhere here in Nottingham. Like this windmill – it’s the first time I’ve been here, even though I’ve lived here for 20 years! So yes, there is a sacrifice but there’s also a reward.

Yes; we often overlook what’s under our noses, so it’s good to reconnect with our surroundings.

Etienne: there’s something powerful about voyaging, and it’s a really enjoyable way to explore. I don’t think many people enjoy the process of flying: the airport, the security, the stress, the hassle, the time, the jet lag. You might end up in some cool places but it’s good to notice what’s around you.

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What about those people who say you have flown a lot, so who are you to tell us we can’t?

Etienne: First of all I’m not saying that you can’t – I hold my hands up and say yes, I have flown a huge amount. I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation the other day and worked out my flights in an international season basically doubled my carbon footprint. But now I have a different understanding of the facts and we are in an emergency situation. We’re talking about the collapse of civilisation – I’m not making this up, this is Sir David Attenborough saying this! This isn’t about shaming people or making them feel bad, it’s saying, find out, investigate the facts, and come to your own conclusion.

It’s a beautiful day, gorgeous weather, and nice as it is to be sitting here in the heat, it’s a sign of things to come and that’s quite scary.

Etienne: Yes, it’s the hottest day of the year, perhaps even the hottest day in the UK ever, and that’s a cause for concern. There will be vulnerable people dying because of this hot weather. It’s not a matter of belief – this is fact and science. This is a man-made phenomenon. And yes, it might make staycations a bit more attractive to have nice weather here in the UK but it’s going to make life much more difficult.

So how can we as a society move away from cheap air travel?

Etienne: well we must. We have to find a way. The reality is that we have to change or we are going to be changed. Cheap air travel has done a huge amount of good in some respects – it’s connected people to diverse communities, it’s shown the wonders of earth, but now we’re understanding its true impacts – perhaps they’ve been obscured – perhaps we’ve wanted to ignore them – that burning fossil fuels and producing this carbon dioxide is killing us. We’ve left it so late that the choices are difficult now. We live in an internationalised world where cheap air travel seems necessary. But how necessary is it? How much can we squeeze this to make it so we don’t kill ourselves? Because frankly, if we keep going as we are, there isn’t going to be any air travel, there aren’t going to be any holidays, there’s going to be no food on the shelves, no water in the taps, there’s going to be rioting by people who are angry, suffering and desperate. This is not just me making this up! It seems disconnected now, but what does this mean to your loved ones? Do you want them to have a future that is safe and fair, and a world that is liveable? When you start to ask these questions you have to admit that the answers are a little difficult to take but if we don’t take them we are condemning ourselves.

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Much food for thought, much self-examination we need to do, and much thinking about the implications of our actions. Starting with the flight free 2020 pledge! Thanks so much for signing, it’s amazing to have your support, and it’s great to be here in lovely Nottingham finding new treasures under our noses. Thanks Etienne.

Listen to the full interview and take it with you on our podcast.

Etienne Stott and Flight Free campaigner Anna Hughes

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