New Internationalist

To fly or not to fly?

Issue 409

We jump on a plane as a matter of routine. Yet the climate-changing emissions from aviation are now a major concern. Chris Brazier wrestles with one of the trickiest issues of our time.

The plane is over the English Channel when the pilot’s voice crackles over the loudspeakers.

‘Just to warn you that there’s been a bit of trouble at Heathrow with people protesting about the impact of air travel on climate change. Nothing to worry about, but when we land you may see a bigger police presence at the airport than you would normally expect.’

The tone is jocular and clearly intended to draw us all together into a kind of community of ‘sensible’ travellers who might have to suffer the disruption of ‘extremist’ campaigners.

So what exactly am I doing here, in August 2007, given that I feel a much greater sense of kinship with the Climate Camp protesters down below than with the pilot’s cosy set of assumptions? It’s a good question. I’m on my way back with my family from a holiday in Italy. Last time we went, a few years ago, we drove there and back, via Luxembourg and Switzerland, taking our time and making many stop-offs on the way to break the journey. This time when we booked, almost a year in advance, we knew our time would be squeezed between work commitments and being back for our daughter’s exam results. So, not without qualms, we took advantage of ludicrously cheap flights that would get us there within a couple of hours rather than a couple of days.

I tell you this to indicate my starting-point when I began to research this magazine – for all that I bike to work, compost like crazy and am vegetarian, I am far from being in the environmental vanguard, and certainly don’t feel able to lecture people about what they should or should not do.

Given this, I was not exactly burning to pick up the topic of Ethical Travel. I had no problem considering the effects of tourism on the Majority World. But since most tourism depends on air travel I knew I was likely to find myself in the unenviable position of having to offer readers some guidance as to when flying is acceptable and when it isn’t.

And the more I sounded people out, the more my suspicions were confirmed. People are concerned and looking for guidance on an issue which has leapt to public attention in recent years – at least in Britain, where the debate about flying rages much hotter than it does in Australasia or North America.

Mind-boggling statistics

My earliest research left me shocked by the statistics on aviation emissions. Put simply, jet aircraft not only emit carbon from vast quantities of kerosene fuel, they also do it at high altitudes, where it has a much greater warming effect than it would in the lower atmosphere. In addition, jets emit other greenhouse gases, including nitrous oxide and water vapour (‘contrails’). The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates the net effect of all these emissions from jet aircraft at 2.7 times the carbon consumed in the fuel. The chart below shows that an individual’s share of carbon emitted on a return flight from London to New York exceeds the carbon used up by six months’ modest driving of an average car.

How such statistics are calculated is always a contentious issue. But the exact numbers are less interesting than the broad-brushstroke comparisons: you can easily dump more carbon into the atmosphere from one return flight than from the gas and electricity you use in your house for an entire year. This was, to be frank, a quite mind-boggling discovery for me, which couldn’t help but challenge my attitude to flying.

Travel has played an enormous part in my life. I cannot easily conceive what kind of person I would be had I not been able to board an airplane. But I do recognize that the profound implications of climate change (and the fight to prevent it) are going to force us all to take stock of our lives, to challenge all our assumptions. Just how far, I wonder, are we prepared to go in challenging the flying culture?

My tentative proposal to the NI editorial team was that we should oppose the expansion of aviation – especially the development of new airports or runways – and encourage readers to reduce the amount they flew. But we should stop well short of calling for an end to all holiday flights.

A great deal of heat was generated in the discussion that ensued, but not a lot of light. It soon became plain that the issue of flying is a particularly thorny one, in which emotions are perhaps too readily engaged. And this was despite the fact that, perhaps surprisingly, there was no-one in the room arguing that the magazine should rule out flying for leisure or experience altogether. One or two people argued that it would be so impossible to pin down reliable estimates of the emissions of various forms of transport that we would be treading on dodgy ground even to enter the flying debate.

Adam Ma’anit

‘Lifestyle politics may be a hit with the hairshirt crowd, but it’s small fry compared to the huge socio-political changes needed to avert the worst excesses of climate change.’

I DEFINITELY AGREE with the need to deal with aviation’s impact on climate change. My worry is about the focus on individual consumption, on individuals taking flights. I think the emphasis needs to go back towards political, economic and environmental policies. Too much of the flying debate is about individual one-upmanship and not about real substantive change. It’s natural for the environmental movement to go down that path because it’s easier to appeal to their base – environmentally minded folk who will accept the wisdom of flying less and peer-pressure each other – but the movement shouldn’t shy away from the difficult questions.

Lifestyle politics may be a hit with the hairshirt crowd, but it’s small fry compared to the huge socio-political changes needed to avert the worst excesses of climate change. Just as telling people to eat better won’t solve the obesity crisis, so too will the ‘you fly, we die’ message fall on deaf ears. And let’s not forget the importance of building up the alternatives. Telling people to fly less and travel by train instead when the rail system in many countries is so mind-boggingly expensive, over-crowded and unreliable is hardly a convincing argument. Rather than solely appealing to people’s better consciences, let’s focus our energies on the big wins that can be made with modest political will.

Aviation’s growth is very worrying and that does need to be curtailed. The big target is short-haul flights to destinations that could easily and comfortably be serviced by rail, bus or ferry. But those services need to run well, they need to be just as heavily scrutinized for their environmental impacts and they should be reasonably affordable and safe. At the moment, they’re often not, so it’s no wonder people take to the skies. But not flying has become an iconic badge of environmental commitment and I think that’s misguided.

If there were the political will to do something about climate change so much could be done in so little time and aviation would play a relatively small role in reducing the global footprint. For example, if government said tomorrow we’re going to ban all electronic devices with standby mode it would reduce electricity consumption by a huge amount at a stroke. How many people factor the standby mode into their purchasing decisions? Not many. But if you deal with it at a macro level you actually take it out of the equation.

Same with government-sponsored housing insulation, combined heat and power units for residential blocks, support for micro-renewables. Stopping the war would deliver massive carbon savings and free up resources that could be used to steer us away from climate disaster. There are lots of things that simply can’t be done at an individual level and have to be done by society as a whole – reining in corporate power and wasteful energy transmission, decentralizing energy grids and promoting renewables, stopping subsidies of fossil fuels, ending aviation’s tax-free fuel ride. And that’s just for starters... There is so much we can do now. So let’s stop the incessant navel-gazing and agonizing over our personal carbon ‘footprints’ and build the momentum for real change.

Mark Lynas

‘Aviation is the one thing for which we need a technofix.’

It’s worth looking at work travel as well as holidays because that’s probably the largest component of most people’s carbon footprint. When people fly for their work, are the ethical considerations their own responsibility or their employer’s?

None of these things are completely black and white and it’s finding a way through the greys that has become an ethical minefield. There’s a cultural value shift going on and things haven’t quite settled yet when it comes to what’s moral and what isn’t. But in the mean time there are a lot of accusations and counter-accusations.

Is there a danger that focusing individuals on their own carbon footprint is a distraction?

You need to know where you stand in terms of what your contribution is to the collective problem. Of course, simply doing things at an individual level is not going to be enough – it’s got to be a collective approach to a collective problem and that comes down to politics, to building a movement. That’s more important than what you do at home but you’ve got to do both – they’re complementary.

When a right-wing group in the US got hold of Al Gore’s [massive] electricity bill it played well for them because it sowed cynicism and that in turn has an effect in paralyzing social action. I wrote defending Gore because it does strike me that this ‘green hypocrisy’ argument about individual behaviour has gone too far. Some people’s aggregated impact on the climate should be seen as positive despite their air miles.

I make the calculation – we all do. And it’s not just flying, though that has become symbolic because of the big numbers attached to it; it’s everything – every time you turn on the heating in your house it’s worth a certain amount of CO2.

But flying consumes much more carbon even than heating...

It does, but only when you look at it from an individual point of view. When you look at it from an aggregate point of view, the flight component of a national carbon budget is still very small because most people don’t take trips to New York. The biggest source of carbon is still space heating, which is a lot less interesting but is much more important than flying. On the other hand, flying is a relatively easy thing not to do. Here in Wolvercote [his village] we’re going low carbon and we’ve found that most behaviour hasn’t really changed except that people have been taking fewer holiday flights.

Don’t you find it problematic, saying people shouldn’t fly when you’ve travelled so much yourself?

I can’t imagine how I would have been had I not spent a lot of my life in the South. I’m happy to rule out future holiday travel for myself – I’d felt yucky about being in places as a tourist for a long time, so that’s easily done. But it’s such a big sacrifice for other people to make and that’s why I think aviation is the one thing for which we need a ‘technofix’. We’ve got a totally globalized world with families all over the place and you just can’t unpick all the threads.

The low-hanging fruit is insulating your loft [attic]; stopping aviation is the highest-hanging fruit there is in terms of the bang people get for their carbon buck.

Say to the industry: ‘Look, you’ve got 15 years to do this or you go out of business’ and I think they’d come up with something. There has to be a role for technological innovation and Manhattan Project-type approaches to this.

George Monbiot

‘People shouldn’t be flying for leisure or tourism purposes at all.’

It’s possible to have a technological effect on almost every other area of climate change apart from aviation. You could run almost the entire energy system on renewable power if you did it in the right way. Aviation is the one area for which there is no available technological solution in the foreseeable future. We’re not likely to see battery-powered jetliners.

It’s not just a question of blocking future airport expansion; we have to reduce what’s already there. We have to cut aviation emissions by 95 per cent if we’re going to keep overall emissions to the level we need to. That means people can fly only 5 per cent of the amount they are now – and that’s a maximum.

People shouldn’t be flying for leisure or tourism purposes at all. They also shouldn’t be flying for business. If you’ve got a pressing family obligation, a relative who’s sick or dying, then fair enough. And if you’re doing something important with human rights or raising awareness of the environmental threat and there’s no other way of getting there, you might be able to justify it. But even then you have to think very carefully because it’s going to be rare that the importance of the work will outweigh the damage done by the flight.

What about damage done to communities in the Majority World that are currently dependent on tourism?

I do accept that some communities are going to be hit hard by this. But you have to set that against the enormous and much greater damage that will be done to other communities all over the world by climate change. We have to make it a priority to help those communities and countries to develop better ways of surviving and thriving that do not depend upon transporting 150 pounds of human halfway across the planet and back.

What would the world be like without the intercultural exchanges that derive from air travel?

Cross-cultural international connections don’t depend entirely on flying. You can travel by boat or by train almost anywhere – it just takes a lot more time. So travelling without flying is still possible.

And in terms of bringing about change, it isn’t really necessary to travel to become an internationalist. At the time of the Make Poverty History campaign most of the people in the West who became deeply concerned about Africa had never visited there but had been moved by what they had seen on television. You don’t become an internationalist by travelling – just as travelling in itself doesn’t make you an internationalist.

You started as a travel writer, though – you’ve benefited in all kinds of ways from international travel that have helped make you the person you are. How can you deny those benefits to young people now?

I do feel bad that I’m having to say to young people now that they cannot have the opportunities I had for guilt-free experience of other lands and cultures. But there’s no alternative. That experience of travel is simply not available to people now. It’s another example of how the sins of one generation have been handed to the next generation who have to pay the price.

There was also an argument that for the New Internationalist to concentrate its attention on individual behaviour – when and whether people should be travelling by plane – would be a mistake. There are much more important battles to be fought than this in the war on climate change, ran this strand of thought, than encouraging people to think about their ‘carbon footprint’. I invited one of my editorial colleagues, Adam Ma’anit, to lay out this position (see box, above).

There is no doubt that the primary need is for governments, rather than individuals, to take action.

Climate change is the greatest issue of our time, yet politicians the world over continue to funk it, fearing that if they derail the globalized consumer bandwagon it will cost them their jobs. Given how huge is the task in front of us, the primary requirement has to be to campaign, to do all we can to change the political landscape so that it reflects the real (planet-)burning issues rather than the pre-eminent concern with the dollar in our pocket.

But I still felt it was important to include in the magazine some recognition of the dilemma faced by individual readers concerned about the ethics of flying in an overheating world. Those of us who try to reduce or constrain our carbon footprint are not likely to be distracted from campaigning for the big-picture political changes. One can reinforce the other. Don’t we all feel much more comfortable campaigning for a cause if we are doing our bit? That way at least we can’t be charged with hypocrisy. And our own individual actions may have a ripple effect, whether by inspiring others or by contributing to a statistical trend. Changing our lifestyle could reinforce pressure on politicians to pull us out of this tailspin. After all, we know more clearly than ever that every kilogram of carbon we propel into the atmosphere is doing some very dirty work.

Consulting the oracles

One of the main proponents of the ‘carbon footprint’ way of looking at this problem is Mark Lynas, author of High Tide, Six Degrees and Carbon Calculator: Easy ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

When I met Mark, he was just back from a mammoth journey by boat to Norway. ‘It took 10 days – it was a disaster,’ he said ruefully. ‘If I’d done it in a plane trip in a day it would have been a hell of a lot easier than dragging the whole family out there for 10 days. You can go a bit too far in terms of being puritan on this. Mind you, it always plays well because people always ask how you got there. And it’s nice to be able to say: “Well, train and boat!” It even makes headlines in the papers because people don’t expect it.’

While he has ruled out holiday flights for himself, he readily acknowledges the moral complexity of the issue – as well as stressing that he too sees individual effort as secondary to the vital job of building a movement that will shift governments. And he hankers after a technofix (see box, below), even though, he added: ‘George will kill me for saying so.’

The George in question is Monbiot, the Guardian columnist and author of Heat: How We Can Stop the Planet Burning. The chapter of Heat on aviation (‘Love Miles’) lays out very starkly the damage done by air travel – and the impossibility of meeting any meaningful emissions targets if we continue our love affair with it.

‘A 90-per-cent cut in carbon emissions means the end of distant foreign holidays, unless you are prepared to take a long time getting there… It means that journeys around the world must be reserved for visiting the people you love, and that they will require both slow travel and the saving up of carbon rations… If you fly, you destroy other people’s lives.’

Ulp. You can’t get much more categorical than that. Reading my interview with George (see box, overleaf), you might wonder why I didn’t ask him the most obvious follow-up question: how many times have you yourself flown somewhere in the last year? Actually I didn’t need to ask him – he was so primed for that question that he misheard one of my others and answered that he has taken two flights in the last 18 months, both to climate-change events where he judged that he could make more of a difference by attending in person than by not flying.

I was more concerned to probe how he, who began as a travel writer and has benefited in all kinds of ways from experiencing other countries and cultures, feels able to say that young people now should not avail themselves of the same opportunities. His answer is pretty much that, however bad he feels about it, the problem is so huge and so all-trumping that there is simply no alternative.

I cannot bring myself to say the same. As I write, my daughter is experiencing her first day of teaching in a village in Malawi, having just spent a week of ‘orientation’ in the capital, Lilongwe. I am proud that she has chosen to spend her gap year before university working in Africa. What she learns about the world and its injustices and inequalities will reverberate through her entire life and will give her a connection with Malawi, and with Africa as a whole, that no amount of book reading or film watching could have achieved. Should I really have said to her, at a time when the rest of the world seems to be leaping on a plane at the drop of a hat to sun themselves on a beach or to go shopping, that she should forego the whole experience because we have just begun to understand the climate-changing contribution of aviation? I don’t think so.

What would happen in a no-fly world?

What would happen at New Internationalist if we introduced a no-flying policy? The issue has already caused some soul-searching within the co-operative. People travelling to the Frankfurt Book Fair, for example, have had to weigh the environmental impact against the cost (since the advent of budget airlines, ridiculously enough, it is actually cheaper to fly from Britain to Germany than to go by train) and the significant extra time involved. Even if a company has a policy that supports (and is prepared to pay for) an employee wishing to go overland, there are often family or work reasons why that person is loath to be away longer than need be.

Given that we have editors in Canada, Australia and Holland, and that we focus on the concerns of the Majority World, eschewing flying altogether would not look to be an option for us as an organization. Certainly the need for editors to be in touch with the realities of everyday life in Africa, Asia and Latin America – on which the magazine’s reputation stands – depends upon their being able to hear ordinary people’s testimonies first hand rather than just relying on printed reports or local journalists.

And New Internationalist is, after all, only the tip of the ‘One World community’ iceberg, which has been founded upon international travel in both directions – on people visiting and migrating to our own countries from far-flung locations, and on our learning from and adjusting to other peoples and cultures.

What would happen to a world in which the only people who travelled by plane were those most committed to its rapacious exploitation? Would airways become the de facto province of the most unscrupulous corporations? Besides, where is the sense in rejecting one aspect of international aviation (tourism) while accepting other aspects (air-freighted goods and foodstuffs, air mail and so on)?

No more new runways

But in the context of an ever-warming world, if we continue to fly for our pleasure and education, we need to ensure that such tourism is not itself damaging, and that it genuinely benefits the host communities at the other end. In the articles that follow I’ll look at what is wrong with most tourism now and whether more sustainable forms of travel that benefit local communities are actually possible.

It also means we have to increase pressure on policy-makers to contain and reduce air travel. Governments all too readily point the finger at individuals rather than demonstrating leadership on the issue. I encountered an example of this recently when, at a Christmas party, I got talking to a civil servant working on transport issues. I was explaining why I thought the British Government’s intention to build a third runway at Heathrow to meet anticipated demand was the purest folly. ‘It’s not up to the Government to take a lead on this issue,’ he said, ‘it’s up to individuals to stop taking advantage of cheap flights.’

As an evasion of responsibility, this takes some beating. Yet it mirrors the approach of most Western governments, which simply put a blind eye to the telescope and continue to chase economic growth whatever the environmental cost. Pointing to booming demand, they plan for new runways and new airports that will soon fill to capacity just like the extra lane for cars on an expressway. As a result, air travel is growing at a rate of some five per cent a year, meaning that air passenger kilometres are set to triple by 2030.1

Air travel urgently needs to be contained – and physical limits (not enough runways to meet demand) are actually a very practical, sensible method of containment. It also doesn’t take an expert to see that the current convenient practice of excluding international air travel from all national emissions targets is absurdly ostrich-like. Besides, the boom in air travel cannot be accounted for by ‘ordinary hard-working people taking their one holiday a year’, which is the routine claim of the media and the travel industry. British Government statistics show that 62 per cent of adults did not make even one return flight in 2006. Among the richest 20 per cent of the population, 61 per cent took one or more return flights. Only four per cent of people took four or more flights.2

So even in the rich world we are talking about a tiny minority of people who may be flying an insane amount.

The spread that follows this article suggests ‘Ten steps to reduce flying’ – and some of these will affect only that tiny minority. But others will apply to you and me as well, because even if the primary focus has to be on forcing governments into action, we still need to do our individual bit.

In a way, putting this issue together has been a gesture in this direction since, three trips to London by train and bus aside, I have made a point of avoiding travelling (always, depressingly, the most ethical course of action of all). On the home front, my family has already decided to holiday this year in Cornwall, on the English coast, rather than further afield. But, on the other hand, the following year we have long planned to revisit friends and familiar places in Canada – we lived in Toronto for a year in the mid-1990s. And now my brother’s family is on the verge of emigrating to Australia – without one or other of us flying we would never see each other again.

It’s a tangled web, as this article – if it has done nothing else – has made plain. Good luck to all of you as you try to sort out what you think about it.

  1. Mark Rice-Oxley, ‘Air travel latest target in climate change fight’, Christian Science Monitor, 17 Aug 2007.
  2. UK Department for Transport National Travel Survey for 2006.

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on To fly or not to fly?

Leave your comment


  • Maximum characters allowed: 5000
  • Simple HTML allowed: bold, italic, and links

Registration is quick and easy. Plus you won’t have to re-type the blurry words to comment!
Register | Login

...And all is quiet.

Subscribe to Comments for this articleArticle Comment Feed RSS 2.0

Guidelines: Please be respectful of others when posting your reply.

This article was originally published in issue 409

New Internationalist Magazine issue 409
Issue 409

More articles from this issue

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 436

If you would like to know something about what's actually going on, rather than what people would like you to think was going on, then read the New Internationalist.

– Emma Thompson –

A subscription to suit you

Save money with a digital subscription. Give a gift subscription that will last all year. Or get yourself a free trial to New Internationalist. See our choice of offers.