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Independent Influencers

Maggie Robertson explores how journalists have the power to influence people's travel decisions – and why they should use it wisely

FlightFree UK
14 Sep 2019 3 min read

Picture shows a row of seated people from the neck down. They appear to be listening to a talk of some kind, and many are taking notes.
Photo credit: The Climate Reality Project

‘It’s about the journey.’

These are Sophia Cheng's words to Helen Coffey, deputy head of travel for the Independent, about why she has chosen to go flight free in 2020 (Carbon Neutral 2020: Meet the people who’ve given up flying, 25 August 2019). It was a great article, full of impassioned travellers who see not flying as an adventure rather than a restriction. What was even better was that Helen tweeted afterwards that she was so inspired by the people she had interviewed for the article that she was seriously thinking about going flight free herself.

At Flight Free 2020 we hope to influence others by our choices. But even we see that travel journalists are likely to influence a lot more people than we can. And when we challenge people to give up flying, even just for a year, it is all too common to be met with the response, ‘I couldn’t do it’. So it was awesome to meet a journalist who was so open-minded and positive about our campaign.

"Even we at Flight Free UK see that travel journalists are likely to influence a lot more people than we can."

Not so great was the defiant article by Helen’s colleague, Cathy Adams, ‘I fly more than once a week, and still the excitement of travel is clobbering the climate guilt’ (26 June 2019). The first time I read this article it made me feel hot with indignation. As one environment journalist put it on Twitter, ‘There is so much wrong with that op-ed I don’t even know where to start.’ But after a couple more reads I started to feel differently: Cathy Adams is wrong, but at least she is talking about it.

The Independent doesn’t censor its journalists, and we certainly don’t hope to win the argument about flying by silencing dissenting voices. But what the article helped to highlight was the extent of misconceptions about the climate impact of flying.

The article starts with a couple of paragraphs about flygskam. Flying, Cathy says, ‘now seems desperately unfashionable at best, and willfully pig-headed at worst.’ She goes on to talk about the appeal of travel to far-away places, and the charm of hanging out at the airport.

But the real problem is the idea that ‘Everyone’s lifestyle is a balance.’ Cathy mentions that she doesn’t have a car, rarely eats meat and is ‘child free’. The idea that these could balance out 67 flights a year is just mistaken. She says not having a car saves close to 5 tonnes of CO2 a year, which is on the high side I think (she used a figure from a US agency, whereas European cars are, on average, more economical, with a UK average of 2.6 tonnes). But even if you did save 5 tonnes, that saving would by wiped out by two return long-haul flights in economy class (one in business). And even being vegan only removes about 1 tonne a year of CO2 from your carbon footprint, whereas my very rough estimate is that Cathy’s flights accounted for around 58 tonnes last year.

"The idea that lifestyle changes could balance out the carbon emissions of 67 flights a year is just mistaken."

As to having children, there is no doubt that this is a major environmental consideration. Mike Berners-Lee wrote that, ‘unless you will ever contemplate lighting a bushfire, the decision to reproduce is probably the biggest carbon choice you will ever make.’ A typical British child, he estimated, would cause 373 tonnes of carbon to be emitted over their lifetime, although this should be less in the future, as we decarbonise our economy. But to say, in effect, ‘I’m going to continue consuming the world’s capacity to provide people with a good life in the future, but that’s OK because I myself don’t plan to have children’… isn’t that a little bit short-sighted? It certainly draws attention to the injustice between generations.

In short, if you fly regularly, there’s nothing you can do to balance the climate impact of flying by making changes in other areas of your life. You have to make a judgment about whether you think each flight is worth it. And the problem with travel journalists flying isn’t whether they feel guilty or not (and Cathy said she doesn’t feel guilty ‘yet’). It’s the disproportionate influence they have on others, by making us want to see the latest cool place for ourselves.

That’s an opportunity too, of course.

Can Cathy, Helen and the brilliant travel team at the Independent come up with more dreamy travel ideas we can enjoy without getting on a plane? Can they make us want to stay on the ground? If they can do that, it will be far more significant than their own personal flying choices. We’re all on a journey, and travel journalists can help us get there.

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