(We need to talk about) flights.

It seems like a lifetime ago now, but there was a time back in January of this year where coronavirus was merely a distant blip on our radars: subject to only a passing, casual mention on the nightly news. Instead of images of face masks and microscopic pathogens our attention was turned toward the Land Down Under, as horrifying footage reached us from the Southern hemisphere showing forests billowing out smog and blackening under ferocious and unrelenting flame.

The fires in Australia provoked a profound emotional response in people here in Britain, one that stirred plenty of people into raising money for charity, donating and raising awareness about its severity. For some reason around that time I was sitting at the kitchen table with Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway blaring on in the background, paying little attention as I scrolled on my phone. My ears perked up when they introduced 6-year-old Keira, who had raised a grand and a half for the relief fund to help victims of the bushfire.

Linked in via video call on the show, she jumped up in surprise in a heart-warming moment as Ant and Dec congratulated her on her heroic fundraising efforts. Her reward? A family trip to Disneyland in Florida. Upon the announcement the studio erupted with hoots, cheers and applause in a display of gun-to-your-head enthusiasm that only a Saturday Night telly audience is capable of, and as I scanned the faces in the crowd I realised that the irony of the prize had been totally lost on them.

The reality of the matter is that the return flights to go and see Mickey and Minnie will have more than wiped out any of the benefit gained from Keira’s lemonade stall. Assuming she doesn’t have any brothers or sisters she and her parents will have increased their collective carbon footprint by 8.1 tons for their short stint in Orlando, with the family’s holiday getaway directly responsible for the loss of 24.3 cubic metres of Arctic ice – enough melt water to fill 150 bathtubs.

That flights are bad for our planet’s climate is probably quite an overlaboured point nowadays – we know they’re bad, and scary statistics don’t have the shock value they used to. Big numbers are hard to grasp, and it’s a tricky business attempting to visualise or understand them in terms of their role in global warming. I could maybe imagine 15 baths at a push, but 150 is far too big of an ask. I think that’s why so often those of us who really care about the environment find ourselves drawn to taking shorter showers, meticulously cleaning and separating out our rubbish and refusing plastic straws: these are all actions that are miniscule in sacrifice and consequence – bite-sized activism that’s easy to pat yourself on the back about.

Photo by Marta Ortigosa

This is what our culture actively seeks to promote. By swapping to a bamboo toothbrush and composting your leftover jalfrezi you’re told that even you can have a small but meaningful impact in the battle against climate change. This reassures people that they have some sense of control over what is happening and more importantly lets big companies off the hook as they pollute, exploit and destroy our planet all the while placing the responsibility for it on our laps. This is, as writer and activist George Monbiot calls it, “micro-consumerist bollocks”. Even if young Keira’s family all swapped to LED lightbulbs in their home, only ate vegetarian, seasonal food produced in their local area and replaced their car with a tandem bicycle for an entire year it would still not equal their transatlantic flights in terms of emissions.

This is not to say that it’s worthless to engage in green habits like buying second-hand clothes and reducing food waste (I’ll be covering both of those subjects next in this three-part We need to talk about series), but rather it’s important that some kind of recalibration takes place of our priorities. By a large margin how people travel is the single biggest determinant of an individual’s carbon footprint – how frequently someone flies will radically change that amount and in turn how much they personally contribute to climate change.

That the severity of the Australian bushfires was the result of global warming caused by human emissions can be of very little doubt. When scientists talk of extreme weather events being caused by climate change, they don’t mean that it’s some kind of suspect in an arson case, working in the shadows with a balaclava on. Climate is the system which we all live under, and the weather events that take place occur entirely within this same system. Author David Wallace-Wells puts it like this:

it is parsimonious to the point of triviality to argue over whether this [hurricane] or that one was “climate-caused.” […] The same is true for wildfires: this one or that one may be “caused” by a cookout or a downed power line, but each one is burning faster, bigger, and longer because of global warming

Photo by CSIRO

Climate scientists have already crunched the numbers, and their findings suggest that Australia’s bushfire risk has already increased by 30% with the climate changes that have happened so far. They also reckon that the dry, hot conditions that made this year’s disaster possible – an event which saw 3 billion animals harmed or killed, an entire area the size of England scorched and nearly 65,000 people displaced from their homes – can be expected to occur as much as four times as often with 2 degrees of average global warming (we are currently at 1).

From the vantage point of Scotland, 2 degrees of warming seems like a pretty good trade off. In fact, on paper that almost seems like an incentive to fly as much as possible if only to selfishly make our own summers that little bit nicer. Sadly, the truth is not so sunny. Whilst average temperatures are set to rise Scotland can expect to be hit with stormier weather, more rainfall and even water scarcity in some regions by the end of the century. It was only last August that a freak flood did severe damage to the Aberdeenshire area and a train derailed in Stonehaven, resulting in the deaths of 3 people in a tragedy that Network Rail stated in their own report was attributable to climate change. This isn’t some far-off problem that can be ignored any longer – it’s happening here and now and it’s away to get worse.

What then can we realistically do? Greta Thunberg made headlines with her symbolic voyage across the Atlantic last year instead of taking a flight, but that’s hardly a feasible alternative for most people looking for a quick summer getaway to the Canaries. One solution would be for either individuals or the airlines themselves to offset the carbon emissions produced by their flights, which basically means that money is used to pay for projects around the world that will reduce the equivalent amounts of carbon put into the air by a flight.

Photo by Anders Hellberg

Companies like easyJet already include offset costs in their plane ticket prices – and there’s a growing movement of people doing the same thing each time they fly on other airlines – however the calculations involved and morals of the whole thing are pretty murky. For one, an EU study from 2017 found that 85% of offset projects overestimated the reductions they claimed to make, and secondly the carbon put into the atmosphere by your flight will remain there for hundreds of years, contributing to the greenhouse effect for centuries to come. Whilst it may have been compensated for elsewhere it would surely be better not to put it up there in the first place.

So offsets don’t really offer up a Get Out of Jail Free card for us people that love a holiday. The only real personal action that can be taken has to then be reducing the amount of airmiles we all travel. The concept of ‘flight shame’ has begun to take off in Sweden very recently, with rail increasingly the favoured way to travel to European destinations. As for long haul flying, any mention there of far flung holiday plans often draws questioning looks and raised eyebrows by friends. This is definitely a positive development that people are giving heavy consideration towards how their choices affect the planet – and it’s having a clear impact on the flying habits of Swedes – but I’m not so sure such a cultural shift can transfer over easily to the UK.

There are a whole host of obstacles that stand in the way of people here opting for alternative modes of transport, least of all the fact that we sit on an island separated from the rest of continental Europe. Train travel is ridiculously expensive in the UK, and short haul flights are routinely the cheaper way to go. It’s a disgrace that this is the case, and it goes to show how badly railways have been neglected by successive governments. You can’t blame people for choosing the convenience of flights when they’re cheaper, less hassle, and we work some of the longest hours in Europe that permit little time for the luxury of travel over land and sea. Don’t get me started on the shitty weather.

Photo by Ketut Subiyanto

The aviation industry itself has committed to carbon neutrality by the year 2050, but how it will achieve this is one big question mark resting on a tall tower of unknowns. Despite growth projections of an extra 100 million air passengers annually over the next three decades, industry leaders insist that it’s possible, pointing to examples of more efficient engineering, fuels and logistics that will help flying become greener. Their plans also rely on offsetting a full third of their total emissions, which basically amounts to palming off much of the problem on to others. We can’t wait around any longer for airlines to pull their socks up and clean up after themselves – governments need to take urgent action on this now.

There is one really glaring fact here that I have yet to mention, and it touches upon the massive inequalities that have become the familiar hallmark of our global economy: the vast majority of the world’s population have never even been on a plane. This is slowly beginning to change as a burgeoning middle class emerges in places like China and India, but out of the portion of us that have been lucky enough to travel through the skies the lion’s share of total airmiles are taken up by a small group of wealthy people. To add to this are private jets, first class cabins which take up a bigger space on the plane and more frequent, further-flung business and holiday trips – all of which help cement the position of the filthy rich as the dirtiest of emitters.

This is where government could step in. Data journalist and illustrator Mona Chalabi has proposed the idea of airmile quotas, which would be allocated to everyone equally based on emissions targets, and traded accorded to need. This would redistribute money whilst going some way in tackling aviation emissions that are shamefully still not accounted for in national carbon statistics. Don’t want to fly, or can’t afford it? Sell your quota to someone else. Fly all the time? It’s time the cost of your trips better reflected the wider harm your flying habit does to the environment.

Comic by Mona Chalabi for the Guardian

There is so much else that still needs done. We need investment for alternative means of transport. We need to seriously weigh up the economic benefits of projects like Heathrow’s proposed third runway against the environmental harms and weather disasters that will be visited upon us in the near future (some estimates suggest the UK’s flood risk could double in just the next 30 years). Most importantly of all we need to take it upon ourselves to reflect on our own behaviour and seriously consider how necessary flying is to our travel plans.

Keira and her family probably never got to go on that Disney trip in the end. Coronavirus lockdowns swooped in around a month after that episode aired, grounding flights around the world and slashing emissions as we all hunkered down in our homes and waited for the worst of the crisis to pass. Regrettably a number of environmentalists engaged in the worst sort of behaviour by celebrating Covid as a welcome development for the planet rather than seeing it for the human catastrophe it was, and this whole “we are the virus” mentality was rightfully taken the piss out of in the only way Twitter knows how.

Coronavirus is absolutely nothing to celebrate, and it remains hard to find any comfort in the temporary environmental gains when the livelihoods of so many have been completely decimated by this event globally. The real takeaway from all that 2020 has thrown our way is that we won’t need to resume the ways of life we had before. What’s the purpose in flying to Frankfurt for a business meeting that could have just been done over zoom? Why go to Spain and risk quarantining on return when we have the gorgeous Scottish Highlands on our doorstep? It would be foolish to claim that none of the old ways will return, but enough has been thrown up in the air by what’s happened that it’s safe to assume that some of it won’t come back down. We have a chance here to build back better.

There will come a time – hopefully soon – where we can venture out into the world again, free of restrictions. I can’t wait to see the day. When that eventually arrives, those of us itching to go away should really evaluate how we travel, and if flights are really worth the enormous cost they inflict on our planet. I’m not saying don’t ever take a flight again; I myself have been eyeing up some future destinations that would be nigh-on-impossible to reach without using a plane. But could you replace your flight with a ferry, bus or train? How about paying the small amount of extra money to offset your emissions? Or committing to a staycation? Getting rid of plastic straws might be a complete waste of time but taking action to reduce your flying footprint certainly isn’t: it’s a sacrifice, but if one journey taken can do so much damage then one journey saved will do a lot of good.

Words by Charlie Forbes

Sources, Further Reading and Other Resources:

I recommend checking out “The Uninhabitable Earth” by David Wallace-Wells for a truly kaleidoscopic look at the myriad ways in which global warming will affect our future (it’s a thoroughly depressing and scary read). You can buy that here.
Tatiana Schlossberg – ‘Flying Is Bad for the Planet. You Can Help Make It Better’
Sabrina Weiss – ‘Carbon offsetting isn’t a cure-all for your filthy flying habit’
Hiroko Tabuchi and Nadja Popovich – ‘How Guilty Should You Feel About Flying?’
Jocelyn Timperley – ‘Should we give up flying for the sake of the climate?’
The Guardian – ‘How your flight emits as much CO2 as many people do in a year’
John Vidal – ‘Offsetting carbon emissions: ‘It has proved a minefield’’
BBC News – ‘Climate change boosted Australia bushfire risk by at least 30%’
Climate Lab Book – ‘When will we reach 2°C?’
IDMC – ‘The 2019-2020 Australian Bushfires: From Temporary Evacuation to Longer-Term Displacement’
WWF – ‘3 billion animals harmed by Australia’s fires’
The Press and Journal – ‘Stonehaven derailment highlights climate change challenges, says union’
Scottish Government – ‘Climate Ready Scotland Scotland’s Climate Change Adaptation Programme 2019-2024 – Strategic Environmental Assessment’
Department for Transport – ‘Resilience of rail infrastructure’
Imogen West-Knights – ‘Why the flight-shaming movement sweeping Europe won’t take off in the UK’
Shame Plane website for calculating emissions
Mona Chalabi – ‘What if everyone had an air-mile allowance? – cartoon’
The Guardian – ‘Can the aviation industry really go carbon neutral by 2050?’

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