The city of Bristol won the European Green Capital Award in 2015 and continues to have a reputation for being an environmentally friendly city. My masters thesis focused on whether the city’s “green” status and reputation is reflected in residents’ attitudes and lifestyles. To research this, I interviewed 15 Bristol citizens ranging from the ages of 23-63 about their lifestyle choices, for example, how much meat they consume, how often they drive and how much they fly.
The results showed that nearly all the people interviewed try to reduce their environmental impact in some way, in their day to day life. The most common was through their diet, as eleven of the interviewees stated that they had reduced or stopped eating meat or fish. In addition, they also mentioned that they chose to cycle instead of drive as often as possible and only bought new clothes when absolutely necessary. They also stated that they would be willing to make further reductions in these areas where possible, highlighting their desire to lead a more environmentally friendly lifestyle. However, when it came to air travel, not only did the majority of the people interviewed record many flights per year (an average of 4.5 flights each per year), but also expressed that they would not be prepared to reduce the amount of flights they take.
On face value, it's very easy for residents of Bristol to make sustainable choices when it comes to diet and transport: with many vegan cafes and restaurants, Bristol caters very well for those who wish to reduce their meat intake, and Bristol is renowned for being a cycling city. However, when it comes to aviation, it’s not just residents who are unwilling to address the climate impact of flying. Despite Bristol City Council declaring a climate emergency, the council and Mayor support the expansion of Bristol airport. This disparity between environmental awareness and action on the one hand, and a reluctance to include aviation in that awareness, certainly challenges the city’s “green” reputation.
So, why are we so unwilling to stop flying? Is it because we are unaware of just how large the environmental footprint of flying actually is? Is it because we believe we are doing enough in others areas to justify it? Or is it because flying has become such a social norm that we simply can’t imagine life without it? When it comes to government and leadership, if a council as ‘green’ as Bristol is pushing for an airport expansion, it stands to reason that its residents will be equally unlikely to see flights as part of the problem.
So, what needs to change? We need to better educate people about the damage done to the environment by our culture of flying. We need to inspire people to take greater responsibility in their own lifestyles by demonstrating that not flying is a legitimate and desirable lifestyle choice. We also need to put pressure on our leaders and councils to be consistent in their messaging, by opposing the airport expansion, not supporting it.
Perhaps most potently, we need to shift the social norm away from flying. That’s the main aim of the Flight Free 2020 campaign: to start the conversation, and inspire collective action that can drive institutional change. With this change, perhaps Bristol can up its game in the green stakes and become the truly leading green city that we so desperately need.