Admittedly, I absolutely love flying! Why? Well, not so much for the no-liquids policy at the security check-in, queuing before boarding, or waiting for the luggage, but for the thrill and freedom that I experience when the plane takes off, when we enter the cloud zone and pass right through it. I don’t believe in God, but being above the clouds with the bright sunlight in your face, despite miserable weather thousands of meters below you, is probably as close as you can get to a divine experience.
A jetsetter lifestyle can be exhilarating, I know from experience. Working as a researcher at a British University, I flew frequently to conferences and to visit my family and friends on the continent. I grew up as part of a generation that experienced flying as a cheap way of transport, where flights often cost less than bus tickets. When I wanted to visit my friends abroad all what mattered was whether or not I could afford to go. With dropping flight fairs of Easyjet and Ryan Air that was often the case. Only much later did I start worrying about the ecological baggage of my decisions.
I deeply care about the planet, not only as humanities only life-support vessel, but also beyond that. For years I had a bad conscience about being an environmental scientist and still making use of the ecologically worst means of transport that there is, namely flying. I told myself, that everyone was doing it and that globally it would make absolutely no difference, if I quit flying or not. Also, what other way of moving around was there really?
As a side note, according to the German Federal Office for Environment (UBA) the most sustainable way of transport is bus travel, closely followed by train, with a big gap to car mobility and flying coming last. Of course, walking and cycling is carbon neutral, but I guess that is a no-brainer, which is why it was not even considered in the report.
As a student, flying never appeared to me as the privilege of my western middle-class upbringing that it certainly is. Did you know that even in a country as rich as Germany only half the population flies once a year and only about a third flies more often than that. On a global scale we are talking about an elite of 2-3% of the population responsible for all the emissions from air travel, contributing to about 3% of climate change causes. I spell this out to you, a very small group of people on this planet (including me and potentially you as well) use a means of transportation that on top of all the other things that this small group needs, like food, shelter, trade, health, etc. adds considerable amounts of greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere, just for flying alone! Is that not a privilege worth talking about?
To alleviate my conscience I paid money to Atmosfair, a company that takes money from travelers and invests it in environmental projects, most often in developing countries, to offset the carbon emissions from flying. Hence, a flight from Aberdeen to Berlin, visiting my family, cost me an additional 14€ (less than 10% the cost for a return ticket) to offset an equivalent of 572 kg of CO2, which is a quarter of the sustainable budget one person should not exceed during a whole year, including transport, food, clothes, healthcare, education, entertainment, etc. Needless to say that flying makes a huge dent in your personal climate budget and when you fly you will with certainty exceed your fair share, for me personally but also as an environmental scientist a huge dilemma!
By the way, offsetting your flight emissions can’t be the answer, if you want to know why, read Kevin Anderson’s Nature article on the matter.
“In academia there’s an expectation to attend conferences, workshops, and meetings. Many academics, including Earth scientists, have large climate footprints dominated by flying.”
So, is it inevitable to keep flying around the globe, if you want to be a successful academic and global citizen? Turns out it is not! I got inspired by Parke Wilde who started the Flyingless Campaign in the US, asking scientists and universities to reduce their carbon footprints. Further, I read the personal story of Kevin Anderson, a high-profile climate scientist from the UK, who decided to travel from the UK to Shanghai by train to attend a conference. It took him 20 days for the roundtrip. This was definitely a quite excentric way of making a point about quitting to fly. However, personally I found his example very inspiring, exactly because he made such a huge sacrifice, despite being a succesful scientist. I thought, if he can do it, I can do it as well. I haven’t boarded a flight since I read his story in 2014.
Our brains are culturally tuned to always choose the most efficient way of doing things, or in the case of mobility, the fastest way of getting where we want to be. If you ever experienced a jet lag, then you know that our body is made for slow travel, where we are able to adapt to our environment gradually. Kevin Anderson used his time on the intercontinental train to finish reports and papers that had been piling up and he enjoyed the time away from the office without distractions. Slow travel also changes your way of thinking about how important certain meetings are for your work. If you can fly to London for a half-day meeting and be back with your kids in the evening, you will probably do it. How about if it took you 15 hours on the train, one way?! I agree with Anderson, when he says:
“Travelling slowly forces us to travel much less, to be much more selective in what events we attend, and to endeavour to get more out of those trips we do take. Fewer trips and potentially longer stays.”
A couple of months after deciding to quit flying, I got an invitation to a wedding in Barcelona. How on Earth would I get from Berlin to Barcelona without boarding a plane?! I thought: should I stay or should I go? I was very fond of the couple getting married so not going was not really an option.
Have you ever tried to find train itineraries for transnational travel? Well, I can tell you it is a f***ing mess! There seems to be very little collaboration between the national train companies and fairs are very diverse, if not to say intransparent. Eventually, my partner and I found a way to get to Barcelona via Paris. We travelled in comfy high-speed trains all along and we even had the chance to visit friends in Paris and spend two nights in the city of love – not too bad either. I believe, overall we were on the train for about 18 hours, or so, but split in two journeys. We saw the landscape flying past, people and languages changing, while we were stoically remaining on the train.
Compared to flying, I find train rides quite liberating, you can go to the toilet whenever you feel like, play with your phone or computer, no matter if the train is “landing” in the next station or not, you don’t have to go through tiring security checks or queue anywhere, you simply board the train and that’s it, end of control.
To be honest, our train ride to Barcelona cost us probably double, if not more, compared to the equivalent flights. I believe, we paid around 300€ per person for the return ticket. However, we where also in the position to take a different route on our way back, without additional costs. We where able to go through Provence and via Lyon and entering Germany in the south-west, a beautiful trip through a hilly, lush-green landscape, that I had never seen before in my life.
You will probably agree, that the extremely high costs of train rides, despite being the eco-friendly option of traveling, compared to flights is a disgrace! Jordan Cox, a young british video blogger, exemplified this with his trip from Sheffield to Shenfield, which would normally be a 240 km distance, travelling by train through the UK. However, Cox took a detour via Berlin, because it was cheaper (49€ by plane versus 58€ by train) and because he had never been in Berlin. Obviously, the savings are ridiculous compared to the longer trip, but it is a nice example how decoupled the prices for flight tickets are from their environmental costs and how much they are subsidised, so that it is actually possible to offer international fairs that are cheaper than the taxi to the nearest airport.
With Cox’s example we encounter the limits of individual choice versus political pressure — the latter would be necessary to change society for the better. Quite often we are told that it only depends on the consumers and their choices and that the free market will then decide whether eco-consciousness wins or not. In the case of aviation we encounter a very powerful lobby, that is massively subsidised. Aviation is exempt from fuel taxes and the new government in Germany is currently thinking about getting rid of taxes on flight tickets, to strengthen this industry even further. This is something where individual choices are nearly pointless and where only political campaigns can make a true difference, until then we are forced to swallow the bitter pill of costly train tickets.
Personally I am with Nimue Brown, when she says:
“If your life doesn’t express your values, then your values appear pretty hollow to anyone looking. […] Don’t ask other people to make lifestyle changes you haven’t made yourself.”
I want to take responsibility for my actions and that includes my way of travelling. For me it does not make any sense to advocate for a socio-ecological transformation of western consumerist society and then live as unsustainable as everyone else (in industrialised countries). Changes won’t happen by wishful thinking and I do think that individual sacrifices will be necessary to turn the tide. It won’t be enough and should come with political pressure, as I explained earlier, but it is a good starting point.
To be completely honest with you, I boarded hundreds of planes in my life, out of ignorance for the environmental costs and also for the adventurous spirit that came with it. I know about the temptation of arriving fast at any destination and the excitement of getting to know far away cultures. Thus, I do not want to judge what anyone of you is doing with his/her life. I only say that we need a different way of thinking when it comes to taking responsibility for our actions.
In times of global warming, which will affect us all, there is no sense in putting our heads in the sand and waiting for a miraculous machine sucking all the excess CO2, that we put there, out of the atmosphere, only so that we can keep on doing what we want to do. Also, that flying elite (me and maybe you), that I was mentioning, will probably not be the ones most affected by freak weather conditions and rising sea levels. The Republic of Kiribati in the Central-Pacific has already started to drown – climate change is not a scary dystopian future, it is already happening!
I believe most of us know that all sorts of human activities are causing global warming and that mobility including flying is an important factor contributing to it. Maybe we should start discussing how it is possible that we can live fulfilled lives without travelling to the other end of the world.
What is your personal story? Do you still fly? What would motivate you to fly less or quit altogether? What holds you back? I would be very interested to hear, so let me know.
Kevin Anderson (2013), Hypocrites in the air: should climate change academics lead by example? (last access 02/2018)
Comparing different means of transportation (UBA Publication in GER, last updated 2012)
Gösling & Upham (2009) – Aviation and Climate Change: The Science (PDF, last updated 2014)