My journey to Jet Zero (taking no flights at all that is, not the Government’s net-zero aviation strategy with its doubtful promise of ‘guilt-free’ flying) has been a long and slightly improbable one.
For the first 22 years of my life I didn’t take a single flight. This was mainly the result of my family’s unswerving devotion to camping holidays. In France. The rest of Europe might as well have not existed as far we were concerned. A concomitant love of ferries and short sea crossings sealed the deal. The perfect holiday for us began with the sight of Portsmouth or Newhaven receding into the distance, with sea air and diesel fumes mingling in our nostrils.
Released from family holidays aged about 15, ferry ports continued to be the starting point for several subsequent summer excursions, with either bicycles or trains taking over in St Malo, Dieppe or Calais. The two trips I made to Paris in my late teens – one with my art school, the other as solo, fledgling flaneur – both involved SNCF’s characteristically low-speed rail network. Airports still weren’t on my radar.
But in 1981 I got a job in publishing and flying quickly became a regular feature of my new life as an environmental journalist (the irony of which can only be retrospectively appreciated). I took my first ever flight just a matter of weeks after joining the company, a “short hop” from Gatwick to Edinburgh my colleagues assured me. The experience was one of an hour and a quarter of alternating high anxiety (why is it making that noise, and, God, now this one?) and rapture (early evening sun bursting through diaphanous cloud cover as I drained the last of a tiny bottle of Dan Air Beaujolais).
For the next 30 years or so I flew on average about two or three times a year. For work (this detail is significant). This was mostly to attend trade shows or press conferences. Frankfurt, Hamburg, Hannover, Amsterdam, Nuremberg, Paris, Brussels, Malmö and Düsseldorf beckoned regularly. Atlanta, Tallinn, Hong Kong, Gaborone, Singapore, Beijing, Marrakesh and Boston just the once.
And as time went by my awareness of the climate impact of all these flights began to build as steadily as my accruing air miles. A chance meeting in the mid 2000s with Craig Sams, the founder of ethical chocolate brand Green & Black’s, at the Biofach trade show (the world’s biggest organic business event) might have been a kairotic moment. Craig told me that he had travelled to Nuremberg by train because he wanted to cut down on his flying. This was mainly to reduce his carbon footprint, but also a small act of defiance against the prevailing speed ethic (do things faster, get more done). Already an advocate for the Slow Food movement, Craig was now making the case for slow travel. Reassuringly, it took him near enough two days to travel from London to Nuremberg. Fine by Craig. But negotiating this extra travel time with my boss (more or less, allow a whole two days to get to the farther reaches of anywhere in Europe) and cost (travelling by Eurostar and Deutsche Bahn to Nuremberg was way more expensive than a budget air ticket ) would have been quite an ask.
So I carried on flying for work at roughly the same frequency for pretty much the next 15 years. By this time a high proportion of those press conferences and professional gatherings I was reporting from were actually about the climate crisis. My flying was now flying directly in the face of climate science. Yet almost no one in my agroecolgical peer group was talking about stopping, or cutting down, on their own flying.
Then Covid happened. And, for a short period, virtually nobody at all was flying. In March 2020 I became one of the legion of office workers suddenly working from home. That became an unexpectedly permanent situation when, in September of that same year, I was made redundant – and, in effect, grounded.
I watched with interest as the world slowly, but very determinedly, resumed flying. By March 2023, global air travel was close to 90% of pre—pandemic levels, while domestic flights in the US had reached 98.9% of 2019 figures.
I am both not surprised and surprised by this. Not surprised because flying regularly again is a signifier of things ‘getting back to normal’, a powerful and understandable impulse. Surprised, because awareness of the climate case for flying less soared in the early stages of the pandemic. Multiple surveys pointed to a heightened environmental awareness during that extended period of reflection granted us by the ‘great pause’. Many of us declared a new willingness to make personal sacrifices to combat climate breakdown. A couple of examples: A large 17-country study showed that 80% of people were willing to make “a lot, or some’ changes to how they live their lives; a July 2020 Boston Consulting Group survey showed that two thirds of people wanted to see environmental issues prioritised in economic recovery plans, with 40% saying they planned personally to adopt more sustainable behaviours.
But if flying less was part of those sustainable behaviours the commitment evaporated into thin air every bit as quickly as the hope that, post-pandemic, we might emerge a kinder and more compassionate society.
For most people, flying less is a behavioural change too far. That said, our resistance to any meaningful behavioural change seems pretty dogged at the personal level. As a letter writer to The Guardian (one D. Scott McDougall from Boise, Idaho) pointed out recently, it isn’t just the 1% or 2% of people who dictate the conversation and policies around climate breakdown who are the problem, it’s the “25-40% of people in the developed world who recognise the issues and impending outcomes, but go along with the status quo in order not to take a short-term hit to consumption standards.” And it’s true, our collective response to the fast-shrinking opportunity to save a habitable planet is a kind of studied ambivalence – for which the price we pay is to live in a state of permanent cognitive dissonance.
But why do we find flying in particular such a difficult habit to break? I’ll risk making a hackneyed observation: Flying regularly and conspicuously is a status signaller. To say “I’m in Madrid on Monday and Copenhagen on Thursday, how does Wednesday look to you?” is to remind someone about your importance. Unhelpful stereotyping? Maybe. But I find it difficult not believe that this is part of the psychological mindset that needs to be dismantled. Flying is also a behavioural addiction, as reported by a team of British researchers over a decade ago, and expanded on in their paper Binge flying: Behavioural addiction and climate change. The study highlighted the strategies of guilt suppression and denial that ‘binge flyers’ adopt in the face of a growing negative discourse towards air travel.
It’s rare to find environment industry professionals discussing in a public forum the question of whether they – we – should be flying less (or at all). When we do there is usually a vague consensus about quality over quantity (we should limit our flying to high quality, or the most important, conferences or trade shows). There’s sometimes more than a suggestion that what we do as a group makes such an important contribution to climate knowledge and mitigation action that there is a net climate benefit to our particular type of flying. I’m not so confident that we should pleading this sort of ‘special caseism’, or deploying a ‘deeper knowledge defence’ of our own habits.
Of course, as a group we’re up on the stats about the climate impacts of flying, and more likely quote them (the more flying-friendly ones that is). We’ll know that aviation is responsible for somewhere between 3-5% of global heating (when non-CO2 climate system impacts are accounted for) – a relatively small contribution compared to energy generation, manufacturing, agriculture and transport as a whole. But since we are also quite likely to be frequent flyers (defined as taking upwards of three flights a year), we’ll likely be in the 15% of people in the UK who take 70% of all flights. That means flying is likely to make up a significant slice of our personal carbon footprint – simply because, mile for mile, flying is the most damaging way to travel for the climate. For some context, a return flight from London to San Francisco emits around 5.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (CO2e) per person – more than twice the emissions produced by a family car in a year, and about half of the average carbon footprint of someone living in Britain*. Short-haul flights produce even higher CO2e emissions. A return flight from London to Berlin, for example, emits around 0.6 tonnes CO2e – three times the emissions saved from a year of recycling.
I’ve been putting off writing about this subject for a long time. Why? Probably for the same reason that if someone asks ‘aren’t you going away this year?’ (UK breaks don’t seem to count as ‘away’ ), I don’t ever reply: “No. I’m not flying any more to help stop planetary systems reaching tipping points that would trigger runaway climate breakdown, synchronised crop failures, mass starvation and displacement, societal collapse and human extinction”. I intuit that my barber doesn’t need to hear this. And, if I’m honest, I probably don’t want to come across as any more pious or judgemental to family and friends than I already do. Actually, I can live with pious. Judgemental is more the issue, not least because I have friends who fly occasionally but whose otherwise low-carbon lifestyles mean they leave a smallish footprint.
But the campaign group Flight Free UK, which encourages people to take a year off flying, says the best thing I can do help change societal attitudes to aviation is to tell people that I’m no longer flying (and why). We do need to say this stuff out loud – to friends, colleagues, family – if we want to challenge the norm when it comes to flying and “shift the narrative away from taking flights as the default”. As an act of participatory solution seeking, this also brings benefits at a personal level by freeing us from eco-paralysis and its associated anxiety and depression. I’ll report back on how this all goes.
Before writing this, I made a list of all of the flights I’ve ever taken for holidays and leisure. Here they are:
1985 – Paris (our honeymoon)
2003 – Edinburgh (holiday with the kids)
2013 – Venice (40th wedding anniversary
2014 – Spain (daughter’s wedding)
2017 – Denmark (visiting old friends)
Seeing this written down makes me realise that I’m more of a freakish outlier than thought.
Of course I’ve no idea how much my horizons would have been narrowed, how diminished I would now be, had I not done all that flying for work and witnessed the respective glories of Gothenburg, Clermont-Ferrand and Aberdeen at first hand. But, generally speaking, I don’t feel experientially deprived by my comically meagre flying record.
A lifelong lack of wanderlust and a visceral loathing of airports certainly makes it easier for me to pledge that I will now only fly very occasionally. But the main reason now, I’d like to reiterate, is climate breakdown. According to Imperial College, ‘cutting back on flying’ is the third most effective thing ordinary citizens can do about climate change, after ‘eating less meat and dairy’. And number one? ‘Making your voice heard’.
Image: “The perfect holiday for us began with the sight of Portsmouth or Newhaven receding into the distance”