Flying less, or not at all

I never intended to write a post about aviation. Not flying is a personal choice I made a while ago, and until recently I didn’t feel the need to tell anyone about it, it was just something I quietly got on with. But a combination of being depressed by government inaction, and a nagging guilt for not joining Extinction Rebellion protests means I’ve got round to dumping my thoughts on the page. Apologies for the length, but as a reward for getting to the end you will find some helpful resources…

Image result for aeroplane

I’ve not been in an aeroplane for 16 years. This is a deliberate choice, based on concerns about climate change. It has got easier with time; the critical mental shift for me was not to make a price comparison between flying and another mode of transport. Instead, I work out how to get somewhere overland, and then decide whether I can justify the time and the money. In practice, this has meant that I travel much less, and that’s mostly because overland travel is so much more time consuming. I could afford it, but who really wants to spend 4 days travelling for the sake of 5-10 days on holiday? I completely accept that this decision is easier for me than it might be for others (e.g. who have a lot of family and loved ones overseas).

It’s still difficult sometimes; I feel really sad about all the experiences I will never have and the cultures I will never experience. This is self-indulgence on my part, and I am ridiculously privileged. And since climate change is the biggest challenge of our generation, I am sticking with not flying for now. It’s not to say I won’t fly in the future, and I await with interest to see if I do, and what it will be that causes me to think that it’s worth it.

Jet setting jobs

Aside from personal travel, I am in a job where it is regarded as entirely normal, if not essential to fly for work purposes. Universities are full of high flying (quite literally) staff who are regularly travelling by plane. Some of these trips are completely unnecessary academic junkets; I remember speaking to a professor at another University who was excited about his forthcoming trip to Nepal because it would be the highest altitude conference he had ever been to, and it was on the subject of energy use in buildings. No detectable sense of irony. But it’s his cognitive dissonance to deal with, not mine.

Some of my colleagues definitely make the effort not to fly unless its strictly necessary. The tricky thing is obviously the level of self-justification required for flying to be regarded as ‘necessary’. In most cases it’s simply busy people feeling that they can’t afford the time that overland travel would take. Another common justification is that it is necessary for career purposes. This rationale is most often used by junior staff who are trying to work their way up the ranks in a profession where giving an impressive talk at a conference can land you that all-important permanent contract. More senior staff also seek to maintain international reputations, and that is obviously harder without international travel. On this point, there’s an interesting recent paper here that analysed the career impact of air travel. It’s only one study, but it found no relationship between an academic productivity metric and emissions from flying (i.e. academics did not seem to publish more or better articles if they travelled more). However, there was a relationship between salary and emissions that held even when the data was corrected for seniority; higher paid staff had higher emissions, although this is not to imply a causal link. Somewhat depressingly, the authors also found that staff working in disciplines related to environment or sustainability did not have lower emissions than staff working in other disciplines.  

The second but related rationale academics use for international travel is for the purposes of collaboration. Discussing ideas with like-minded people, or having your ideas challenged by people working in tangential subjects is fundamental to knowledge creation. But there other ways of doing this without flying that academics are now using.

Some international collaborative projects are setting up ‘regional hubs’ for their conferences, where participants gather, and are then connected to each other via video link. This strikes a balance between the networking opportunities that result, and the wish to avoid emissions. As yet I’m not aware of any research funding organisations or universities that specifically promote ‘slow travel’; this would need them to be willing to pay the extra time and costs for overland travel compared to flying.

All aboard the conference train

A more innovative idea has just been trialled in Norway. On the day preceding a recent conference, the organisers laid on a ‘conference train’; they booked a carriage on a train that was making the 7 hour journey from Oslo to Bergen where the conference was being held, and ran relevant talks and seminars on the journey. This seems like a genius way of tipping the balance in decision making; people flying to the conference are missing out on the very content and networking opportunities that they would use as justification for travelling to conferences in the first place.

All aboard the conference train… On the way to the ‘Beyond Oil’ conference, 2019, Bergen.

Delusions, double counting and the failure to lead by example

Colleagues I’ve spoken to about not flying regard it as unrealistic (for them) and mostly resort to the justification that the benefits they bring to science outweigh the environmental impact of flying. This requires a level of delusion about the importance of their particular discipline, or an unwillingness to confront the reality of the maths, or requires us to double count emission savings; taking credit for the emissions savings that a scientific advance might potentially bring would mean that the people actually implementing that advance can’t also count them. These justifications are all fairly poor, but somewhat scarily, some scientifically literate people still claim that they are carbon offsetting, as if that somehow helps. It doesn’t. I don’t want to get distracted by offsetting, but if you believe in carbon offsetting, read this, or if you want something lighter watch this.

How much does it matter? Emissions from flying compared to other modes of transport

We know that flying is bad, but how bad exactly compared to other travel modes? The easiest place to start is the eco-passenger website, which allows you to compare the environmental impacts of journeys from start to destination. It doesn’t cover all destinations, and the ability to choose not to include radiative forcing as an impact of air travel is bizarre, but nevertheless it’s a good starting point. If you want to do the maths yourself, the UK government’s recommended GHG conversion factors are a good place to start. If you want to travel overland, the best website to start from is maninseat61 which lays out all the options for travelling to pretty much anywhere in the world by train.

None of this gets round the issue of overland travel being time consuming, and therefore not necessarily possible for people who feel they can’t afford a lot of time away for whatever reason. More enlightened organisations can choose to give staff additional annual leave in return for not flying on holiday. See the Climate Perks website for more details.

Committing to overland travel has major benefits to your emissions; as discussed in a blog by Prof. Kevin Anderson here, the critical difference between modes of transport is the speed at which you get to your destination, and the impact this has on whether you choose to travel or not. In practice, the number of trips you take reduces if you don’t fly, so the impact on emissions is much greater than the difference between flying and another mode of transport.

At the end of it all, if you are still going to fly…

All airlines are not the same, and there are differences in the emissions between different companies flying the same routes. These are largely due to the number of seats filled (obviously a less than full plane has higher emissions per person than a full one), and the age (and therefore energy efficiency) of the aircraft. Atmosfair have produced a ranking of the world’s 200 largest airlines, for both shorthaul and long haul flights, available here. A word of warning; this index has been produced by a company that sells carbon offsets. Offsetting is a huge con, and is fundamentally wrong (as discussed earlier). Nevertheless, I’m not aware of another source of information that allows one to decide which airlines are better or worse. Or should I say which are catastrophic compared to those that are merely disastrous.

Not flying at all versus flying less…

Is it necessary to give up flying altogether? I think the answer depends on whether you believe that negative emission technologies (NETs) are going to be developed fast enough and at scale. NETs are things like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), enhanced terrestrial weathering, direct air capture and afforestation. None of which are operating at scale yet. But the UK Government’s Committee on Climate Change are assuming they will provide a huge offset for the ‘hard to decarbonise’ sectors of the UK economy. These hard to decarbonise sectors are agriculture and aviation, as shown in the diagram below.

From Net Zero – The UK’s contribution to stopping global warming, available here. In 2050, emissions from aviation are going to exceed those of every other sector. This is based on the astonishing assumption that aviation demand is going to be allowed to increase (60% from 2005 levels).

The CCC are simply not willing to step into the realm of promoting behaviour change (rapid and significant decreases in flying, and in red meat consumption), indeed they are expecting us to fly more, not less. Personal choice to fly is apparently sufficient justification for relying on unproven negative emission technologies. I cannot share their optimism, so for me, the answer is not to fly at all.

To my friends and colleagues; we are all cynics or hypocrites

I’m not here to judge anyone; I don’t see the flights people choose not to make, only the ones they do. I’ll finish with a quote from George Monbiot, from here:

Like other prominent activists, I will be lambasted for hypocrisy: this is now the favoured means of trying to take down climate activists. Yes, we are hypocrites. Because we are embedded in the systems we contest, and life is complicated, no one has ever achieved moral purity. The choice we face is not between hypocrisy and purity, but between hypocrisy and cynicism. It is better to strive to do good, and often fail, than not to strive at all.

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