During a climate crisis, is flying acceptable?

Ethical and political dilemmas abound these days. Seems like we’re all in need of a New Internationalist perspective. Enter stage: Agony Uncle.

Source: Unsplash
Source: Unsplash

Q: Given that I’m in regular Skype contact with my family in Australia, and given the fossil-fuelled climate crisis we are already experiencing, should I succumb to my brother’s entreaties that I go and visit them? He’s even offering to pay for the flight. (And he’s a tight bastard, normally!) Yours, Infrequent Flyer.

A: In Sweden they call it flygskam, ‘flying shame’. It relates to a small but growing lifestyle decision made by activists, scientists and others: keeping one’s feet firmly on the ground. The hope is that if flying becomes socially toxic, like smoking while pregnant or ‘old-fashioned’ attitudes towards sexuality, then we can start combating climate breakdown.

It’s compelling, isn’t it? All the more so when you move onto the facts: a return flight from Europe to Australia can generate between four and six thousand kilograms of carbon dioxide per passenger. It would take up to three years of going about one’s daily business for the average person in India to produce that much. And here are two more for good measure: some 80 per cent of the world’s population has never taken a flight, and cutting out air travel is one of the most effective ways to reduce personal carbon emissions.

With this, and the charred embers of the Amazon rainforest and wreckage of post-Hurricane Dorian Bahamas in mind, your trip Down Under doesn’t seem right. But, at the same time, there’s something preventing me from forbidding you. It feels so pious. And comparatively useless, when normal consumption rates pale in comparison to the emissions produced by the super-wealthy, who travel by helicopter for any journey longer than a trip to the bathroom.

There also isn’t an equivalent moral weight between consumption and production: it’s the people who run industries like aviation and construction, that profit off our planet’s asphyxiation, rather than the users who should be penalized. But at the same time, our actions make a difference and we need to signal the climate emergency through them.

Perhaps there’s an ethical distinction to be made between travelling for a self-indulgent holiday and fulfilling family obligations. After all, I would wager that most people in Europe who pledge never to fly are not migrants with family members on the other side of the world, separated by long and unfair histories that made the North rich and the South poor.

Those business-people who dash from Frankfurt to the City of London every other week – and have banking jobs that fill the world with socially regressive debt, which requires more carbon-intensive economic activity to pay it off – have more carbon on their hands than a migrant family who travel to the Global South every two years or someone with a brother in Australia they haven’t seen for years.

If you do end up going, then at least cut out carbon elsewhere. Buying the ticket while committing to a meat-free diet and avoiding using a car for a year could play some role in neutralizing the net damage.

There are also interesting ideas worth exploring like Climate Perks, a campaign to get companies to give their employees extra holiday days if they travel by rail or sea instead of flying, which won’t be much help for Australia but is worth keeping in mind. But, finally, don’t forget that spending time with family can seem like a nice thing to do – until you actually get there and have to put up with their ill-formed political views and crass behaviour for days that feel like years. Maybe you’d be saving yourself, not just the planet, if you said no.