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Individual action vs system change

Stopping flying is one of the biggest things you can do to reduce your carbon footprint. But does that actually make any difference to climate change? We explore the issues.

05 Jan 2022 4 min read

Debate rages in climate change activist circles. Does individual action make any difference to carbon emissions? If you forgo a flight, won’t the plane leave anyway?

Some people think it’s wrong to focus on individuals, and that only big system changes can make any difference. It’s true that, in the short term, yes, the plane will go anyway, and your seat will probably be filled by someone else.  

But the travel market is very flexible. Airlines try new routes, build demand for them through advertising, and see if they attract passengers. If they can fill the planes with passengers they are happy. If the route doesn’t work, it gets cancelled. 

If people keep flying, the air routes remain. Maybe the airport will expand, and even more routes will be added. Investors will keep putting money into airports as long as passengers keep buying tickets.

"If people keep flying, maybe the airport will expand, and even more routes will be added."

Here at Flight Free UK our dream is to be talked about in the meetings when airlines plan new investment, like in this 2019 Reuters story about a UBS report that challenges airline assumptions on passenger growth. When banks start questioning the airlines’ growth plans, because an increasing number of customers say they won’t fly as much in future, we know we are winning. 

We need much more than individuals making ethical choices. We need political, technological and economic transformations too. Flight Free UK campaigns for system changes like tax on aviation fuel and no airport expansion. But if, while you are waiting for the system to change, you carry on flying like before… well, let’s just say the fossil fuel companies are going to love you.

If you stop flying, your choice will affect the people around you. It sends a signal that you believe that the climate crisis is real. It connects your actions with your beliefs and values. 

"If you stop flying, your choice will affect the people around you."

Imagine that you are the only person in your group who is wondering if we can still keep flying. You will probably feel awkward about speaking up. Will people think you are a killjoy?

But suppose you are not in fact the only one. Perhaps someone else is thinking the same, but also feeling shy. If you say something, they will feel encouraged to say something too. Perhaps they will back you up. They may even feel comforted that they are not alone.

If one person stops flying, it only makes a small difference. But when many people stop, it adds up.

"If one person stops flying, it only makes a small difference. But when many people stop, it adds up."

Right now we need more than change that adds up. We need change that multiplies. The climate change problem is so big and so urgent we need more than small steps in the right direction. We need more than steady progress. We need rapid, disruptive, exponential change. We need change that goes viral. We need a snowball effect.

Social change can happen quickly. Think of the adoption of smart phones, the decline in smoking, or how unacceptable it is these days to wear real fur*. Could attitudes to flying change like that? Even if we only stopped the number of passengers growing, it would save millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide compared with the upward trend the aviation industry is planning on at the moment.

Individual pledges, new social norms, technology, regulation and taxes… If the planet is to have a snowball’s chance of avoiding dangerous climate change it’s going to take everything we’ve got in the locker. 

Multiply the effect of not flying, and get that snowball rolling, with our tips:

  • Pledge with Flight Free UK. We will do our best to make sure everyone knows that you are not alone.
  • Write to your MP and your local councillors. Tell them about your pledge and why you think it’s important. Ask them to pledge too! You can find out how best to contact your MP here. To find your councillors, there is help here.
  • Ask at work about policies to reduce business flying. For some companies it is their biggest source of emissions.
  • When you take a holiday without flying, tell your friends how great it was. Put some irresistible photos on social media, and make sure everyone knows how you got there. And big up the companies that have helped you travel flight free.
  • When other people talk about their trips and holidays, mention that you don’t fly because you are worried about climate change. Or say ‘I’ve challenged myself not to fly this year.’ It’s not about flight shaming. It’s just showing that another way of travelling and enjoying life is possible.
  • It’s possible that, while you are staying on the ground, your savings or your pension are still being invested in airlines and airports. Have a word with your pension company about whether it should be investing in airports. Air travel can’t continue to grow in a zero carbon world.

* We are grateful to environmental engineer Katie Patrick for these examples. She talks about them in this podcast about the role of individuals in behaviour change.