It’s hard to remember what life was like before the pandemic hit.
Little more than a year ago, 2019 was drawing to a close with something like a promise. It had been the year we had met Greta Thunberg, Extinction Rebellion and the school climate strikes, and the momentum was very much with climate activism. 2020 was to be the Year of Change.
Helped no doubt by Greta’s famous yacht journey across the Atlantic, the spotlight was firmly shone on aviation’s role in the climate crisis. An airline ticket is about the most carbon heavy thing you can buy, and for those of us who are fortunate enough to be able to access air travel, our flights can quickly put us among the top polluters in the world.
"An airline ticket is about the most carbon heavy thing you can buy."
Names from John Humphrys to travel writers Oliver Smith and Helen Coffey penned articles on why they were flying less or not at all. Enlightened countries such as Sweden saw a drop in air bookings, and rail provision rose across Europe. Much Better Adventures led the charge with Tourism Declares, a collective of outdoor and travel outfits taking action on the climate emergency.
It seemed the Zeitgeist was very much with climate action, giving hope to campaigns such as ours. Flight Free UK was born at the tail end of 2018, with a simple ask: pledge to take a year off flying to reduce emissions and inspire a shift in the narrative around aviation. We went into 2020 with over 6000 signatures on our pledge. Along with climate activists across the world, we dared to hope that our time had come.
Then Covid came along and stole the headlines. It was certainly a year of change – just not at all what we had imagined. Flight Free 2020 turned out to be a whole lot more flight free than we could ever have anticipated.
"Flight Free 2020 turned out to be a whole lot more flight free than we could ever have anticipated."
The shackles of lockdown meant that two distinct behaviours emerged. On the one hand, the pent-up demand for travel led to the emergence of ‘flights to nowhere’, a particularly ghastly illustration of our addiction to flying.
On the other hand, people started to appreciate their own neighbourhoods. After months of being cooped up, a swim in the Serpentine is as good as a dip in the Med. The simple pleasure of walking in the woods can be just as eye-opening as trekking in the Atlas mountains. Perhaps being forced to stay put showed us that we don’t have to go far to have a good time.
"Perhaps being forced to stay put showed us that we don’t have to go far to have a good time."
It remains to be seen what effect the Covid crisis will have on our long term flying habits. According to a YouGov poll, 30% of people plan to fly less after Covid, whereas only 15% plan to fly more. That might be more to do with coronavirus than climate concern, but now that we are limping into 2021 with at last the prospect of freedom on the horizon, can we recapture some of that pre-Covid momentum?
So let’s not let the misery of 2020 get in the way of our climate ambitions. The good news is that there doesn’t have to be another year of misery ahead – not flying doesn’t mean not travelling, and we can still reach these much-desired holiday locations for a fraction of the emissions if we choose to travel by other means. And now, more than ever, it’s imperative that we take action. 2020 was the hottest year on record, and the six hottest years ever recorded all occurred in the last decade.