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Can I really make a difference?

Cancelling one flight won’t save the planet. But what effect do our actions have, and can once person really make a difference?

FlightFree UK
27 Jan 2020 3 min read

Picture shows a close up view of a single snowflake. It has landed on a cluster of other snowflakes. The rest of the image is blurred and silvery grey.

It’s easy to feel that there's not much point in us stopping flying when there are some people out there who fly all the time.

Maybe these are people we know, or people we hear about, but either way, if we ourselves don't actually fly all that much – perhaps once or twice a year, or less – we feel that others’ flights would completely dwarf our own attempts to cut down.

A point was raised on our Twitter feed recently: a person who flies little, never long-haul, has booked a flight to Japan. Will cancelling that flight really have any effect? This person is not the problem, are they, when 15% of people take 70% of all flights? Why target the low-hanging fruit? That’s not where the impact truly lies.

Picture shows two facebook comments by a user who's name has been blocked out. In the first comment they state "What we need to do is persuade the 15% to seriously modify their selfish, damaging behaviour. That would have the impact we desire. By asking the very infrequent flyers (like me) to abstain, are we inadvertently letting the 15% off the hook?". The second comment reads "I've never flown long haul in my life - just the very, very occasional flight within Europe. 15% of people make up 70% passengers. I ride a bike, take the bus and walk whenever I can. In July I fly to Japan. What would be the positive impact of me cancelling the journey."

The answer, of course, is no – this person is not the problem. But it is not so simple as that. When we consider the focus of our campaign, and our target group, in truth, it is everyone, and all flights. The five-times-a-week, the few-times-a-month, the once-every-ten-years. All of those flights are important in the fight against climate change.

Carbon reduction

By not taking that flight to Japan, you will save 3 tonnes CO2 from your personal carbon footprint*. This is not insignificant when you consider that the average annual footprint in Europe is 8 tonnes, and a ‘sustainable’ footprint* is 2.3 tonnes. Of course, if it’s just once in a blue moon, that one flight is not going to tip the balance in terms of our global emissions.

But not taking a flight is about more than carbon. As Greta Thunberg said when she crossed the Atlantic under sail, “By stopping flying you don't only reduce your own carbon footprint, you also send a signal to other people that the climate crisis is real.”

“By stopping flying you don't only reduce your own carbon footprint, you also send a signal to other people that the climate crisis is real.”

Our campaign is about behaviour change, not simply emissions reduction. Movements such as this have already been seen to be effective: in Sweden domestic flights are down by 9%, some routes have been cancelled, and night trains are being reinstated across Europe. Industry has really responded to the growing trend away from flights, with investment in alternative modes of transport. If we continue to demand flights, we will continue to get them. If we spend our money elsewhere, that is where the investment will go.

Reaching the 15% who take the majority of flights

In addition, we must not ignore the effect on those around us. By refusing to take a flight you make a political as well as an environmental statement. Perhaps unsurprisingly, studies have shown that you are more likely to reduce the number of flights you take, or stop flying altogether, if you know someone who has done the same. We are social creatures and have a tendency to follow the herd, which means that our behaviour very much depends on what our friends, family or colleagues do.

"You are more likely to reduce the number of flights you take, or stop flying altogether, if you know someone who has done the same."

Though you might not be one of the 15% who takes 70% of the flights, you might know someone who is. By taking a flight, no matter how occasionally, you are ‘just like them’ – you have common ground. By refusing that flight, and talking about why, you stand out. People take notice. Start to question. They might not themselves cancel a flight any time soon, but you can bet that the next time they sit on a plane, they’ll be thinking about it. This is how movements grow – a significant few bucking a trend, and the trend starting to follow.

The low-hanging fruit

To come back to the fruit analogy, it is almost impossible to reach the high branches unless you clear the lower ones first. By collecting all the low-hanging fruit, the next layer up is revealed and accessible. Once that is clear, the high branches are within reach. No behaviour change project worked by going straight in at the jugular. The ‘easy targets’ give our campaign credence and legitimacy, and we must engage those first in order to reach the higher polluters.

We all have an important part to play, frequent fliers and infrequent fliers alike. Here at Flight Free UK we will continue to encourage all people to join our campaign, from all walks of life, and with all levels of flight frequency – in the knowledge that each of us can play a crucial role in the urgent battle against climate breakdown.

*data from flightemissionmap.org

*as recommended by IPCC

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