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Ten steps to reduce flying

Rule out commuting by air
A no-brainer for most of us but increasing numbers of people are actually commuting by air. Once almost entirely a US phenomenon, cheap air travel has now produced the equivalent in Australasia and Europe. Air commuting tends to be weekly rather than daily but still, none of the reasons for entertaining this – high property prices where you work, a long-distance lover – could possibly justify it in ethical terms. Either be content where you are or emigrate – but don’t imperil us all by living in one country and working in another. And in the unlikely event we have a reader with a private jet, please contact the NI for better ideas as to how to spend your money.

Think again about that holiday home
Okay, so this might have seemed a good idea at the time – ‘we’ll have a foothold in an area we love’; ‘it’s a good investment’; ‘it’ll be something to pass on to the kids’; etc. But if you depend on cheap air travel to reach your holiday home then it is an edifice built on sand. Any kind of second home (let alone third or fourth) is bound to increase your carbon contribution massively, even if it is reachable by car or train. It will also help boost property prices in the area so they are beyond the reach of locals.

Find alternatives to flying for work
Flying is built into some people’s jobs. And in some cases it’s necessary – if someone’s writing a report about poverty in the Philippines, say, then it’s best actually to spend some time there. Sometimes there is no substitute for being in the same room. But such occasions are actually pretty rare in the age of digital communication. Many flights for work are actually little more than perks. Big companies have long been able to afford video conferencing but the advent of Skype and Second Life means that even humble outfits can now have regular international meetings without expensive phone costs.

Cut out weekend jaunts and ‘city breaks’
Low-cost travel, particularly in Europe, has brought with it a new phenomenon – people who fly off to Madrid or Prague or the Baltic States for the weekend. Given that short-haul flights are more damaging (because take-off and landing consume much more fuel than cruising at high altitude) this is environmentally disastrous. Some people have added a weekend break in spring and a skiing holiday in winter to the two weeks in the summer sun that used to be the limit of their expectation. Worst of all, stag/bachelor/buck parties that once meant a night out on the town can now involve a weekend of debauchery in the red-light district of a foreign capital.

Travel by land where possible
Trains, buses and cars make their own carbon contribution. But, as a rule of thumb, any trip by air is more damaging than one overland – with the possible exceptions of a sleeper compartment on a train or an SUV driven alone. Car journeys consume broadly the same carbon as would a flight over the same distance, so if they are shared with others they come out better. And in a car, bus or train at least we notice the ground covered. Hop on a plane and we are magically removed from real time, real travel – and from any connection with our carbon impact.

Campaign against airport expansion
If a road is widened to reduce congestion, more cars simply fill up the space. The same applies to airports. Lack of runway space is a physical limit on air travel that we desperately need to retain. You may have to travel a few hours because your local airport has not been allowed to expand – but look at the bigger picture and this is a very small price to pay.

Enjoy travelling slowly
The idea of slow travel is beginning to gain ground, mirroring the ‘slow food’ movement that values food from local artisans rather than the mass-produced, industrially processed mainstream variety. ‘Slow travel’ might involve rediscovering the delights of the long train journey – talking with the people in your carriage and watching the landscapes and communities change instead of leaping over them in one bound. The transcontinental train journey across Canada, for example, is wondrous – yet relatively few Canadians actually make it.

Holiday closer to home
Exotic holidays in far-off places can be memorable experiences. But holidays in your own country can be just as relaxing. Every other year, or one year in three, why not take a break from flying and spend some time in your own corner of the planet? The Australasian tradition of one long ‘grand tour’ undertaken before responsibilities kick in is a sensible way of dealing with geographic isolation – provided it does not involve too many unnecessary flights. If you’ve taken a year out of your life to travel, you have the time to travel overland.

Don’t ‘offset’, join the campaign
Instead of buying carbon offsets, try to cut out a future flight. Offsetting projects are often dubious – at their worst they involve requiring people in the Majority World not to use technology in compensation for our using it to the max. And offsets are all too often a convenient let-out for a travel industry unwilling to deal with the real implications of climate change. If you do purchase offsets, make sure you know what the company is doing with the money – and don’t assume it lets you off the hook of campaigning against climate change and reducing your own footprint.

Take the pledge
The Flight Pledge Union offers you the chance to pledge not to travel by air for a year except in an emergency. This is the ‘gold’ pledge. The ‘silver’ version is much more modest, involving a promise not to take more than two short-haul return flights or one long-haul return flight in the year to come. Pledges like this can raise awareness and increase commitment. But they are not the be-all and end-all – use them to help you feel more comfortable about campaigning for the big-picture changes that governments and industries urgently need to make.

New Internationalist issue 409 magazine cover This article is from the March 2008 issue of New Internationalist.
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