‘You won’t get people to stop flying, Dave.'
People have been telling me this for 20 years. The popular lists of ‘big ticket’ things we can do for the planet – go plastic free, buy fewer clothes, eat vegan, switch to an electric car, buy less stuff, recycle everything, use renewable energy – nearly always miss cutting back on travel off the list.
Why do we avoid mention of this biggest chunk of our carbon footprints? It’s common for people to say: I recycle, I don’t buy fast fashion, I don’t eat meat. So please don’t ask me to fly less.
Unlike far-flung exotic destinations, we don’t want to ‘go there’. Just like greenhouse gases are invisible, the jumbo-sized impacts from flying are concealed by the entire travel industry, and remain largely unspoken by most of us. Most people assume that flying must be relatively OK, otherwise more people would obviously all be querying it. So, thrown off the kerosene scent, we focus on the other things, and carry on flying.
Over the past couple of decades I’ve felt very isolated in the pledge I made not to fly. In the past I would play it down, saying that I didn’t actually much like flying, and that I didn’t really much want to fly anyway. It was partially true, and partially untrue. How could an engineer and former competitive athlete not like flying?
The thrill of take-off, the transcendence through cloud, the view – what’s not to like? And how could anyone not want to see the wonders of the world? To witness different climates, tribes, landscapes, forests, rivers and mountains?
I do often wonder if I’m missing something. But I made a choice: I don’t want to see these things if flying to them means I am partly responsible for destroying them. Because, roughly speaking, five hours spent flying is another TON of carbon dioxide equivalent, per passenger, dumped into the ocean of air we all share.
My work as the Carbon Coach means I speak to lots of people about making lifestyle changes, and lesson one is not to turn away from the tons that we can influence, by distracting ourselves with the kilos and the grams we can shake off. Flying is the biggest of all the big ticket items – the fastest way to add tons, and keep adding them, to your carbon tally.
If we are going to leave fossil fuels in the ground, and we have to, it means a complete overhaul of the way we do things. Having a staycation, getting to know people in our local community, and being satisfied by all that our own locality has to offer rather than wishing all the time to be somewhere else. The advertising industry does a great job of making us feel dissatisfied with who we are, where we are, and who we’re with. We are promised that flying halfway around the world and back again on a regular basis will make us happy.
We are well past the point in our planet’s history where we could ignore the reality of our massive carbon footprints. We need to face the music, and the maths, of our actual impacts – in tons – and take action. Not offset, deny or avoid. Instead, make real, measurable cuts, starting with the biggest. Feeling virtuous about the small things we are willing to do, to trim our footprint a bit, whilst ignoring the big stuff we’re not willing to, is what got us here: climate catastrophe.
I’ve noticed a shift in awareness over the past couple of years. Talking about flying has been a lonely journey for a long time, but it feels like people are finally facing the truth. I can imagine in just a years’ time, many people saying:
“Oh, we have quit flying now darling, haven’t you?”
Because of course, we can stop flying. The coronavirus grounded 80% of fleets within months and emissions plummeted. And while we didn’t choose this, it has given us a glimpse of a different way of doing things.
"After the coronavirus we got a taste for bikes and for walking in all the precious nature that’s tucked away closer to home, and we’ve no desire to mess up the sky again."
"Just like we did with plastic, and meat: it all seems so obvious, now it's done!"