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New Year Solutions: Flights

February 2019 by Georgia Gage

We are writing a review of Jo Fidgen’s podcast on BBC 4 of New Year Solutions in which Joe “tackles the ways in which ordinary people can make a difference”. Episode 1 tackles meat and you can listen to it here.

If you’ve been keeping up with our New Year Solution blogs so far, perhaps you’ve delighted in making some changes to your lifestyle, setting yourself firmly on the path to a greener, carbon-neutral you. However, now we’ve reached a clincher, flying, and if you’re squirming in your seat, you’re not alone.

In 2016, airlines carried 3.7 billion passengers, this is expected to rise to 7.2 billion by 2035.

If you have ever taken a flight (1 in 5 of us), you have never done anything in your life that emits more carbon in one go. Even if you’re the most vegan, bike-riding, recycling, vegetable-growing sustainable eco-warrior on the planet – one flight and your carbon footprint sky-rockets. A long-haul flight, say from Manchester to Hong-Kong, increases your carbon footprint for the entire year by about a third. This is the equivalent of driving an average petrol car from Manchester to London 28 times.

Time to knuckle down

The UK has a plan to reduce carbon emissions by 80% on 1990 levels, but what would this mean on an individual scale? Mike Burners-Lee (resident carbon emissions expert) says the average carbon footprint in the UK is 15 tonnes. Less than an American but more than someone from China. If we are to meet our 80% reduction target, we must strive to reach a 3-4 tonne average per person. This means that, one long-haul flight and we’ve spent our entire carbon budget for the year!

Maya Rosen from Sweden is on a mission to persuade people not to fly for one year. While standing atop a mountain in northern Norway surrounded by breath-taking natural beauty, she couldn’t reconcile that her flying there was helping to destroy the very landscape she had travelled to enjoy. That was the last time she flew and that was ten years ago.

Could you give up flying for a year?

Aviation accounts for 3% of European carbon emissions, if global aviation was a country it would be in the top 10 carbon emitters [1]. If we all gave up flying for a year that is one big chunk out of the global carbon footprint. What would it mean? We’d have to do all over-seas business by Skype, there would be no nipping over to visit your family in Budapest (unless you’re willing to take a very long yet scenic train journey) and no exceptions for your favourite cousin’s wedding in the Seychelles. We would have to learn to wait again, wait for deliveries from across the globe. Expect horrible delays of emergency aid and medical supplies. And what about holidays…

We all absolutely love a holiday. Living on an island not without its fair share of rain, wind and generally disgusting weather, we love to escape to palm-lined paradises where we can relax and forget about work for a while. Lorrain Whitmarsh (specialist in climate change psychology) admits it’s a difficult one. People work hard all year and feel, quite rightly, that they have earned a holiday. Even for the most environmentally aware among us, our concerns about the climate promptly fly out the window as the plane leaves the runway. There is also a certain status associated with travel, people believe it makes us more interesting and culturally aware.

The UK is your oyster

Maya argues that flying does not correlate with happiness and there are plenty of beautiful and exciting places to be reached by train. I totally agree. Have you travelled down the west coast of Scotland? Or taken a little ferry to the Silly Isles? The UK and nearby Europe have an abundance of beautiful and culture-rich holiday spots. Let’s go and explore them!

Perhaps a compromise is in order. It seems that persuading people to give up flying all together is an almost impossible task but we can definitely reduce. Business travel can be easily replaced by communication technology – invest that ticket money in a virtual meeting room system! When it comes to travel for pleasure, lets strive to only visit by plane 2-3 very faraway places in our life time (rather than every year).

Maya strikes home a tough truth, “We are in the middle of an acute climate crisis – we cannot do everything that we want to do.” It’s not about never flying again, it’s about considering where you want to spend your carbon budget for the year and whether or not you have any left after day-to-day living. If you really must fly, have you considered offsetting?


If you would like to calculate the carbon footprint from your travel, follow this link.

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