The iconoclast: Why asking people to abandon plane travel is not the answer

Telling people to stop flying forever to save the planet is unrealistic. Here's what we should do instead.

Thinking of catching a flight to another part of the world? Today, you’re being told to think again.

Climate activists have recently turned their attention to the impact transport is having on the environment, and aeroplanes are high up on the list of what to avoid.

According to a report by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), planes significantly contribute to the world’s carbon emissions as they produce greenhouse gases.

The report warns: ‘Because of continued increases in forecast demand for aviation and a lack of low carbon alternative technologies, aviation will increase its relative share of UK’s emissions if greater improvements are not made’.

So, some people have taken power into their own hands by pledging to go ‘flight free‘. Anna Hughes, founder of this particular project, says in a roundtable discussion “we can’t afford to not be sustainable”.

Teenage climate action figure Greta Thunberg is also leading by example, as she gets around via boats and trains instead of planes.

And many articles have fuelled this movement. One BBC headline from earlier this year (7 January 2020) reads: ‘How to travel by train – and ditch the plane’. It features many examples where people have decided to take the train rather than fly, where they even share positive feedback about their experience.

But in reality, this transition comes at a cost: their time, money and energy. Although the anti-flying movement seems to be taking off, I’m not convinced we should be saying goodbye to jets.

The obvious reason is: people just won’t stop flying. Of course, this alone is not enough of a justification to dismiss the climate-driven protest.

Let’s face it, the freedom and convenience of flying has revolutionised our way of life. It unlocks treasures across the world. Whether you’re visiting family abroad or on an adventure to experience different cultures, planes accommodate all different kinds of people in varying circumstances.

They enable us to travel relatively cheaply and quickly. You might argue that the planet is paying for our pleasure, but perhaps it’s the responsibility of the airlines to make changes to their system in order to provide a more sustainable service?

I tend to agree with Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO at The International Air Transport Association ( IATA), that to encourage the end of flying as we know it would be a great loss to many aspects of society.

He explains: “Some say that the answer to climate change is to stop or heavily reduce flying. That would have grave consequences for people, jobs, and economies the world over. It would be a step backward to an isolated society that is smaller, poorer and constrained.

I say, let’s work together to make flying sustainable. CO2 is the problem. We can and are doing something meaningful to reduce it.”

As Alexandre suggests, there are ways around the issue of emissions from aviation, other than abandoning it altogether. There needs to be more pressure on companies to introduce eco-conscious initiatives, such as alternative fuels.

But rather than solely anticipating changes from the top down, it’s important to increase the consumers awareness about how they can also do their bit. Travellers can reduce their carbon footprint by following these tips:

  • Travel light
  • Take direct flights if possible
  • Choose economy class
  • Research sustainable airlines
  • Use your local airport
  • Offset emissions

This last point is probably the most obscure, but is very effective in helping to tackle climate change. Often, when buying a plane ticket, you will have the option to pay an additional charge in order to ‘offset‘ your emissions.

The money is spent on other projects dedicated to protecting the environment, such as planting trees. Emissions are then reduced elsewhere to compensate for the impact of the flight.

There was recent controversy over the World Economic Forum (WEF) attendees travelling to Davos via private jets, whilst proceeding to discuss the perils of our current climate crisis.

However, in 2019, WEF justified the jets by promising plans to offset all emissions from the planes. Not enough people know about their option to offset emissions. But lecturing people to never fly again is not the way to inform them about the more realistic steps they can take.

Equally helpful advice is to travel less, or at least be more selective when deciding to fly. For instance, you might have an international meeting which could be carried out through the wonders of technology by using a video call. Then, there is no need to take a plane to the actual destination.

The trouble does not lie with asking people to become more sustainable, but in urging them to do things that involve major sacrifices to their lifestyles.

By taking the train instead of flying, your holiday becomes an ordeal that requires meticulous planning, ample amount of journey time and is likely to be a lot more expensive.

To tell people to stop flying altogether is to imprison them with the chains of unreasonable climate action. As aviation analyst Alex Macheras says, we ought to recognise that air travel is absolutely essential and is arguably what makes the world go round.

If the broad ‘we need to stop flying’ view is somewhat unproductive, rather than give up flying, we should give it a sustainable revamp.

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