We choose to travel without flying. It’s an unpopular choice. Most of our friends and family regularly use planes. Other travellers we meet along the way have almost all come by plane. Sometimes it can feel we’ve made outcasts of ourselves, yet we stick to our guns. This may baffle you.
I’m going to try and explain.
This post started off one thing, became rambling, mutated into something else, was restarted, paused, then became something else again. All I can say is this is a big subject, my thoughts are still evolving, I’m learning more all the time, but this is at least part of where I am right now.
Telling people you don’t fly can rub them up the wrong way
Our choice to remain flightless can be a a difficult subject to discuss. Talking to people who do fly, often frequently, it’s hard to share our belief that most flying is morally questionable. Mentioning it can end up coming across as a personal attack, which can be unpleasant for everyone involved. It’s not nice upsetting people.
Often this means we avoid the subject, and then feel a bit ashamed about it.
But live and let live doesn’t really apply for environmental choices — one person’s behaviour affects everyone, and no one person can make a difference alone. It’s only in convincing others to change their behaviour too that we can have any real effect.
Discussing this the other day, I used the phrase it’s not whatever floats your boat. Then I realised that whether your boat floats or not may well be extremely pertinent in the near future. Sea levels are currently rising by about 3.5mm a year, and this rate is accelerating. The long term effects of this look pretty scary.
I wanted to laugh and to cry thinking this. Laughing is usually more productive.
Because we’re currently very much in the minority with this choice, these conversations happen a lot. It can be seen as a drastic lifestyle choice when you live in a society where frequent flights are the norm. Actually we haven’t found it a drastic decision, so much travel is just as easy without a plane, as we’ve been trying to document on the blog. But still, people are interested.
There are plenty of people who don’t fly, many for environmental reasons. Dan Kieran, who’s written a book about the value of the rich experiences that slow travel inevitably provides, for example. George Monbiot, somewhat famously. And this man.
It’s hard keeping conversations about flying on impersonal ground, because ultimately, yes, we would prefer if other people didn’t fly. There are nuances to this position, except-whens and only-ifs (I’ll come back to those), but in basic terms this is it. We don’t fly, and we don’t think you should either.
Flying is at least twice as bad as the alternatives
It’s complicated, this stuff, but it’s also very simple.
Flying is at least twice as bad for the planet as almost every other way to travel. For some journeys it might be up to 50 times worse. This sounds fanciful, but it’s not. Really.
As an example, for a return journey between London and Rome, the CO2 emissions look roughly like this:
- Flying first class: 2096kg per passenger.
- Flying economy: 524kg per passenger.
- Driving alone: 534kg per passenger.
- Driving with two in the car: 267kg per passenger.
- Driving with four in the car: 134kg per passenger.
- Taking the train: 129kg per passenger.
- Taking a coach: 84kg per passenger.
For some context, estimates for the emissions we can afford if we want to limit the worst effects of climate change generally sit at around 2 tonnes per person per year. That’s 2000kg, less than this journey using first class flights.
So flying economy works out about the same as driving with one in the car (you’d have to have a very compelling reason to want to drive 1700 miles alone).
Otherwise it’s twice as bad as driving with two in the car, about four times worse than taking the train or driving with four in the car, and six or seven times worse than taking a coach.
I don’t even know what to say about flying first class. Don’t?
As you can see, flying first class is 25 times worse than taking a coach, so where does that 50 times worse above come from?
Flying economy versus taking a ferry on foot, which comes out at 10kg of CO2 per passenger for the 1700 mile round trip. I have no idea why the emissions are this low. Any ideas? Admittedly this is somewhat irrelevant as there’s no London to Rome passenger ferry, and if there was it would be a lot further than 1700 miles. But for journeys where ferry is an option, this is important.
These figures come from this online carbon calculator, which uses the current figures published by the UK Government in its calculations (the about tab in the calculator can tell you more). Other calculators will come out with different numbers (sometimes drastically different — see footnote).
The data made me do it
These numbers matter — without knowing them, how can we hope to make choices that really are green, not ones that just feel green?
There have been countless times when I’ve been chatting with people about flying vs. other modes of transport, and they’ve expressed genuine surprise that flying is so much worse. I seem to meet a lot of people who want to live greenly, but genuinely don’t know which choices matter most.
Enter Chris Goodall.
It’s packed full of information about which choices are really the greenest. Really useful, because I want to make the biggest impact possible when I make green choices, and to do that you need to know the numbers.
If you want to read more but you’re not up for a whole book, there’s a nice readable Guardian article summing up the environmental impact of flying here.
There are limitless ways you can make your life greener, but you can’t always do all of them. It might theoretically be possible for everyone to live zero carbon lives, but what would that look like right now? Do I want to live a life with no books, cinema, mechanised transport, internet or espresso? Heck no.
So I make compromises. I think the sensible approach here is to commit to the changes that will have the biggest effect, and do your best with the rest. Everything we do has some emissions associated with it, you have to decide whether the emissions produced by an activity or a product are worth the good it brings.
We decided that flying doesn’t justify the emissions it produces, given that there are so many alternatives. Admittedly, there’s also an appeal in a decision that’s so simple. It’s clear cut. We’re not going to fly. Actually it’s a little more complicated really, but I’ll come back to that.
The statistic in Chris Goodall’s book that convinced me to quit flying was something like ‘A single flight from London to New York produces more emissions than heating and lighting a three-bedroom house for a year’.
(I can only say something like because I don’t have the book with me on the road — it’s quite big — and memory is fickle.)
I was hit with the fact that making tons of small reductions to your carbon footprint is great, but their cumulative impact can easily be wiped out by one flight. Reading that, I couldn’t very well do anything but quit flying. Or at least try.
I didn’t want to quit, but I’m so glad I did
It was an uneasy feeling learning that all the efforts I was making to live greenly were being completely obliterated by my travel habit, and the flights it entailed. I almost felt sick. I really didn’t want to give up flying, but knowing what I now did, I had to. I wished a little bit that I hadn’t found out. Flying was almost part of my identity. I saw myself as somebody who travelled, and I didn’t want to give that up.
Flying opened up the world for me. At sixteen I set off to Barcelona on a budget flight with a friend and spent the whole weekend walking around lost, dancing in terrible clubs, drinking beer until the late hours of the morning, and eating terrible tourist food. We managed to see the Sagrada Familia and Park Guell, I think this was it. I had the time of my life. Prague the next year was even better, we actually saw loads of stuff, in between beer and cosmopolitans. (N.B. If you throw up cosmopolitans, it’s fully pink. You’re welcome.)
I was hooked. Flights to France, Hungary and Croatia followed. But I got a bit braver too, and combined flying with overland trips in Eastern Europe. Taking the train, it turned out, was even more exciting than flying. You met people, got into hilarious (sometimes only in retrospect) situations, and saw spectacular scenery. I bonded with my travel mates as we lost our entire body weight in sweat on a train journey from Sarajevo to Budapest. I had a great time.
A few days after I got home from that trip I flew to New Zealand to study there for a year. Arthur and I had been together for just over a year at this point, and it turned out we missed each other too much for such a long separation. He flew out to see me. Then I flew back to see him. It was a bad year for our carbon footprints (and our student bank balances).
I suppose it was when I came back to the UK after that year that I really began to think about the impact flying has. Before, I’d sort of ignored it, but after a year like that I couldn’t pretend my flying habit wasn’t a big deal. Six months later we made the decision to quit, and six months after that we got married. We drove to Normandy for our honeymoon.
We’ve had loads of great flight-free trips since then, exploring the UK and Europe, and now round the world. Some of the best experiences on our round the world trip have come from journeys we could have skipped and replaced with a flight. The Trans-Siberian railway for a start. I can’t begin to describe here the rich experience that crossing all of Russia by train provides. (You’ll have to read the post for that!)
Quitting flying doesn’t mean quitting travelling. Not by a long shot.
Quitting flying makes a huge difference
If you fly at all regularly, say once a year, quitting flying is likely to be one of the single biggest things you could do to reduce your contribution to climate change. Even if you make exactly the same journeys (unlikely), the impact of this choice is huge. If you’re already making efforts to live greenly, quitting flying is almost certainly the biggest change you can make.
(Maybe quitting eating meat is just as effective, a point Arthur and I disagree upon, yet somehow manage to stay married. It’s a mystery to me too. But let’s stick to one controversial bit of lifestyle hectoring at a time!)
So here’s the conundrum.
I want to tell you to quit, but I know you won’t like it
Ultimately, I’ve slowly learned that it doesn’t pay to be too militant about this. It’s unlikely to convince anyone. Coming out and saying I don’t think you should be flying usually results in hostility or a quick exit from the conversation. Even merely suggesting viable alternatives often puts a frozen I-know-what-you’re-trying-to-do-and-I-don’t-like-it expression on people’s faces.
George Monbiot has written about this effect before, much more poetically (of course), and also rather more bluntly:
If we want to stop the planet from cooking, we will simply have to stop traveling at the kind of speeds that planes permit. This is now broadly understood by almost everyone I meet. But it has had no impact whatever on their behavior. When I challenge my friends about their planned weekend in Rome or their holiday in Florida, they respond with a strange, distant smile and avert their eyes. They just want to enjoy themselves. Who am I to spoil their fun? The moral dissonance is deafening.
So instead of proselytising I find myself a hypocrite on a balance beam. Maintaining that flying is usually the ‘wrong’ choice, while not condemning individuals for doing so. Feeling joy to see people who’ve come to us from far away, but sadness and unease that they flew here.
But hypocrisy is an inevitable result of standing for anything. I’d rather be a hypocrite than give up. And I’m not alone in thinking this.
No flights at all is our aim, but even we have circumstances in which we’d break our rule. Major life events of close friends and family, health emergencies, that sort of thing. For us it’s a case of weighing up our need and the need of those close to us against the consequences for the planet.
And yesterday, the result of that weighing up was booking a flight.
Now I really feel like a hypocrite. This one, of course, is a long story.
More next time.
In fact, the aviation emissions calculator recommended by the Guardian here comes out with a figure of 1113 kg of CO2 per passenger for this same journey on an economy flight from London to Rome and back. Twice the answer you get using the Government’s figures.
This is a big problem — to convince people that flying is a bad choice environmentally, the maths needs to be consistent. When it seems like the numbers are constantly changing, people either feel confused and give up, or feel swindled and opt out. I’m not theorising on my own here, this is psychology. The minority must hold a consistent view to convince the majority.
I plan to expand on this in a future post. It’s a big topic to get into, wish me luck.