Cathy and I have made a new year resolution to avoid flying. I have a few existing work commitments that mean I need to fly next year to Alice Springs at least two or three times and we are leaving the way open for us to fly if there is a very strong reason (e.g., Jasmine or Alexa were living overseas). Besides that we don’t want to fly again.
We felt we had to make this decision when working on the workbook for the Transition Streets Challenge. In it we wrote:
Our modern lifestyle has made air travel very attractive and very accessible to many of us. It is cheap, convenient and has allowed us to explore our world in ways that previous generations could only dream of. This has come at huge environmental cost. GHG [green house gas] emissions from domestic air travel in Australia have increased 129% since 1990. In 2008, over 550 million tonnes of CO2 were emitted from global air travel.
A return flight to Bangkok produces 3.5 tonnes of greenhouse gases per person. A return flight to London produces 7.8 tonnes of greenhouse gases per person, or over twice the emissions for a year of power use for a reasonably efficient household.
Rob Hopkins, one of the founders of the Transition movement has made a commitment to not use air travel due to its high carbon footprint. Many others are starting to join him.
George Monbiot, a British author and environmental activist concludes in his book, Heat, that to meet current environmental targets set by the British government for 2050, almost all flying will have to stop and the current fleet of planes grounded. “I recognize this will not be a popular message,” he writes (quoted in Rosenthal 2010).
This is a tough one, another social dilemma. We live in an affluent society (70% of Australians are within the wealthiest 10% of the world’s population), and the cheap cost of air flights encourages us to take advantage of this convenient luxury. Finally, as a society we will need to reduce our reliance on air travel. As individuals we will have to move on from the justification that “the plane’s going anyway”.
Flying is a classic “social dilemma“. Social dilemmas occur where there is a clash between immediate self-interest and long-term collective interests. We KNOW that plane travel is bad for the environment. We KNOW that if everybody in the world flew as much as the average Australian the environmental impact would be huge. (Currently only around 5% of the world’s population has been in a plane.) We KNOW it is unjust that a small percentage of the world’s population uses far more than their fair share of the world’s resources. And yet we can gain a lot of personal benefit from flying – all sorts of opportunities open up.
When we are asked to give up air travel for the sake of the environment and a fairer world, we are being asked put our self-interest aside for the good of the whole community. This can be quite challenging.
The following graphic (from Borken-Kleefeld 2011) is a bit confusing, but interesting. It shows the impact of travelling by car, plane, two-wheels (e.g., motorbike), bus and train on global temperature 5, 20 and 50 years after the journey. It shows the impact of CO2 gases (in blue), the impact of all gases (in apricot) and the range of uncertainty (the line). Planes have four times as much impact as cars after 5 years, but cars actually have a greater impact after 50 years (because some of the pollution produced by cars remains in the atmosphere for much longer).
We need to take urgent action on the environment and so reducing our air travel is one of the biggest things we can do at a personal level. But, as Robert Butler suggests, “Aviation connects deeply with the ideology of modern life—individualism, self-fulfilment, choice, travel, freedom.”
One of the reasons we are taking a stand on air travel is that it dwarfs other personal contributions to CO2. The average Australian contributes around 20 metric tons of CO2 every year – the global average is under 5 (and even this is unsustainable). If we are to move towards a more equitable contribution per capita, we need to be producing, on average, a quarter of the amount of CO2. One return flight to Europe produces well over our fair share.
One of the problems is that air travel has increased dramatically in the last few decades. Since 1973 Australians have significantly increased their plane travel. On average we travel an extra an extra 2075 kms per year by plane – an increase of almost 470% (Millard-Ball & Schipper 2011)
We have probably passed the tipping point where dramatic climate change is unavoidable. I am increasingly finding it easy to despair at our slow progress towards sustainability. It is inevitable that we are going to have to make hard decisions, and it is immoral to leave it to our children to fix the problems we are creating.
Some people argue that travel helps us broaden our minds, understand the lives of others and appreciate what we have. Yes, this can be true. I question, however, how much change it really leads to. We might see poverty overseas and realise that we are very lucky in Australia. But does this really help the people in poverty? The gap between the rich and poor continues to widen, and we in the over-developed nations continue to use far more than our fair share of the world’s resources. If we appreciate what we have, are we willing to give other people the same opportunities we have? Even knowing that if everybody had the same standard of living we had there would be disastrous environmental impacts very quickly?
I realise that, at one level, not flying will make no difference. At the same time, it will be an opportunity to take a stand and to raise the issue with others. I have already started talking with work about the implications for my work. When I am invited to a conference or to do some work interstate, I will need to discuss non-flying options.
It isn’t an easy decision – we realise it will limit our choices. In September/October last year, we flew to Darwin, drove to Kakadu and Uluru, and flew back from Alice Springs. We had a fantastic time and will remember it for the rest of our lives. We expect this will be the last flight we take purely for leisure.
While we might be part of a small minority of our friends and colleagues who don’t fly, we be joining the vast majority of the world’s population who do not.
While we don’t expect others to make the same decision, we certainly encourage you to think twice before hopping on a plane.