Ethical travel series 1— Is flying really that bad?

London St Pancras Station Eurostar arrival hall

This weekend I took the Eurostar to Paris. It was comfortable. It was fast. It was easy to check in — and crucially it was only 10 minutes from my house. I was feeling particularly smug because I felt like I’d made a good environmental choice — but let’s be honest, this isn’t my usual form of travel.

For the past two years I’ve taken more than 50 flights a year. I have religiously kept count — and it’s embarrassing.

The environmental imperative

April’s Extinction Rebellion protests in London, and recent UN reports, were an eye-opener for many people like me. Protesters occupied Waterloo Bridge and Oxford Circus for a number of days demanding urgent action against climate change.

They then moved on to Heathrow airport over the Easter weekend. Heathrow is the world’s seventh busiest airport, accommodating more than 78 million passengers a year. Counting all London airports, the city has the world’s busiest airport system.

Airports have become increasingly visible targets in the fight against climate change. The issue of the third runway at Heathrow has gained even more political salience in light of the latest climate change revelations.

But do airports and air travel deserve such opprobrium?

Air travel has rightly come under scrutiny. Thanks to the latest UN report on biodiversity we have learned of the colossal impact that human activity is having on the planet. We are in danger of causing the extinction of one million species over the next few years — with serious consequences for all living creatures, including ourselves. Greta Thunberg, in her address to EU leaders, pointed out that up to 200 species are being made extinct every day.

The popularity of air travel has certainly increased. And it is growing most quickly in regions of the world like Asia and Africa. In 2018, passenger traffic increased most quickly in Turkey, Thailand, China, Indonesia, and Vietnam. As the popularity of air travel grows to meet demand, especially in fast growing emerging economies, so will its environmental impact.

A major concern is green house gas emission associated with aviation. The numbers vary. UN IPCC estimates put the impact of aviation between 2% and 5% of the world’s manmade CO2 emissions. The higher numbers often refer to figures that account for the effects of altitude — particularly of the other gases like nitrogen oxide and water vapour emitted during flight.

Some downplay the extent of aviation’s climate impact — and I have been guilty of this in the past — citing how the industry has decoupled emissions growth from the increase in passenger numbers and that it is only a small contributor compared to other more polluting industries like power generation and agribusiness. To be fair to flying, it doesn’t use as much carbon as some large cars per passenger km. And I felt particularly smug when I learned that cruise ships were the worst of a bad bunch — with some estimates suggesting that cruise ships use 2.5 times as much carbon per passenger km as a flight. And that is before taking into account the direct environmental damage to marine ecosystems cruises cause by emitting waste and bilge water.

The problem with flying is that it covers large distances in a short period of time. One long haul flight emits the equivalent of 4 tonnes of carbon. By way of comparison, every person in the UK uses 8.5 tonnes carbon per year, and the global average is only 5 tonnes.

It is clear that emissions must be cut from the aviation industry. This will require continued large-scale investment in new technology, coordinated action to implement new operating procedures, and crucially, changes in behaviour.

But all this talk of flying’s environmental impact negates the other circles of the sustainability Venn diagram — the social and the economic.

Many places rely on tourism for their economic survival. It is a key economic development strategy in many developing countries. The irony is that the ten places most reliant on tourism are also some of the most vulnerable to climate change — small island nations like Maldives, British Virgin Island, Aruba and the Seychelles. All places you have to fly to — and usually not directly.

Tourism is the world’s biggest industry, estimated to be worth around US$4 trillion. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), the sector now accounts for 9.9 per cent of all jobs globally. And it will only continue to grow. More people are travelling and want to see the world. And this means that the potential of our collective impact — both positive and negative — is greater.

So the answer isn’t ‘don’t travel’ but is to learn how to travel smart.

Seeing the world is a phenomenally enlightening experience. Tourism undoubtedly can have a positive impact on local communities and countries. But given what we know if it difficult to see how travel and tourism ‘business as usual’ can continue with its extensive flying and potential environment damage. So a major rethink is required broadly about what travel and tourism will look like in 2030 and beyond — if we still want to experience the beautiful places, unique communities and biodiversity this planet has.

With all this in mind here are some things to take into consideration when planning your next trip. And it all revolves around taking a responsible attitude to flying.

For the individual:

♻︎ Fly less and take alternative forms of transport for short journeys — particularly trains which reportedly emit 29 times less than an average domestic flight.

♻ ︎Offset your carbon emissions. Many airlines now provide the option, but you can also look to schemes run by the Woodland Trust, which plants trees.

♻︎ If traveling to distant destinations, choose one long-haul flight over multiple short-haul options. Stay longer and go to places that will really benefit from your contribution to their economies.

♻︎ Fly economy. The impact per passenger is less than in business or first class.

For governments and the global community:

♻ ︎Support countries that cannot afford to develop and implement climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies — taking into account tourism dependencies — and help them to develop alternative sustainable livelihood strategies.

♻︎ Invest in new technologies that will make the aviation industry cleaner, greener, and more efficient. Its a constant frustration to me that billionaires are pouring money into space travel but not cleaning up the existing aviation industry.

♻︎ Explore a carbon credits system for air travel. This will probably have to be a global system to ensure it has any real impact, and it will be important to that the implementation of any system has a strong equity lens.

If you are interested in ethical and responsible choices in other areas of your life, travel should be no different. Whether travel has a positive or negative impact comes down to choices — your choices. And it comes down to whether you educate yourself about your options. Travelling well really matters.