Two years ago, I stepped out of the arrival hall of Manchester Airport. I was tired, sunburnt, and sick of queuing. The whole flight I had felt anxious about how many emissions were being produced, I had sat in my seat attempting and failing to distract myself with a book, knowing that in attending this family holiday I was contributing to the destruction of our planet, including the livelihoods and health of other families. In that hall in Manchester I made a commitment that I would never return to an airport again. And unlike many past New Years resolutions, I have actually stuck to it and I’m celebrating being two years “flying free” in 2019. I wasn’t alone in this as it’s a decision more and more people are taking, but an even higher number need to adopt it if we are going to seriously mitigate climate change’s impacts.
When environmentalists say that lifestyle changes need to be made there are two topics, at least in my experience, which cause upset; asking people to change their diets away from animal agriculture and suggesting people drive and fly less. Obviously, this article is about tackling the latter, and I want to clarify a point to ensure I’m not misconstrued. I accept that individuals for work or education may need to fly, and in fact that such flying may allow them in the long run to fight climate change and other ills that harm our planet. But there are also many who fly as part of their education, work, and lifestyle when other less carbon intensive forms of travel are accessible and affordable. Alongside this, there are even more individuals who fly merely to holiday. It is such unnecessary flying which I am encouraging people to refuse; individuals need to stop flying where travel is unnecessary or where accessible less carbon intensive models are available. This is most of the time.
Despite awareness of the climate crisis and the need to reduce emissions, flying figures remain consistently high. In 2017 over 2.2 million flights landed and took off from UK airports alone, with the highest number of passengers ever at over 280 million terminal arrivals and departures. Even worse, the reason given for many of these flights is holidaying; in 2017, 54% of travellers at Gatwick, 35% at Heathrow, and 59% at Manchester were flying for holidays. The rest are by no means useful business flights either; Heathrow had the highest percentage of business flights, at merely 26%, many of which will likely have been replaceable by other transport means or teleconferencing. In all airports where these surveys were conducted the proportion of business flights compared to 2007 had fallen, and the proportion of holiday flights had risen. The statistics are mind-boggling, showing that not only are we flying more, but it seems the reasons we are flying are increasingly unnecessary.
I also don’t want to be misrepresented as only advocating individual responses to the environmental challenge of flying. Just as we fight against the further extraction of fossil fuels, we must also fight against the expansion of air infrastructure in the UK. There should be no decision about which London airport needs a new runway; the planet needs less. It is clear the Government’s decision to expand Heathrow’s runway is not only short-sighted, but from an environmental perspective downright ridiculous. Alongside the prevention of further air development, real transport alternatives need to be constructed, including cross-border and internal rail integration. Part of the responsibility for financing such development should come from the many air industries that have lobbied for and profited from our addiction to flying.
There also needs to be greater reporting by businesses, as well as institutions such as government departments and universities, of their workers’ flights. From this reporting there then need to be policies put in place so that they reduce their numbers as quickly as possible. A great way that individuals can force change on this issue is to actually ask their workplace/university whether they record flights of staff, how they are planning to reduce them and, if they are failing, lobby them to actually act. Executives and Vice-Chancellors flying first class for a conference they could have easily attended over video call deserve nothing less than condemnation and demands to change.
Alongside this there is a whole tourism industry which needs to not just be regulated and taxed in line with reaching emission targets but reconfigured to acknowledge environmental limits. A cultural shift needs to be made away from the tropes of adventure, exploration, and the importance of travelling as far as possible from home. Tourism in the social media age seems to be increasingly engaged in a kind of consumptive one-upmanship of distance, food, and sights and we must acknowledge that this isn’t necessary. I say all this because I’m deeply sceptical that the tourism industry in modern society, despite all the imagery, is meaningful. I’ve met many students who took gap years or extended summer trips, and to be honest, I can’t tell them apart from the rest of us, other than obnoxious photos and “wavy garms” of course. And I’ve tried to convince myself for many years that my earlier trips had some deeper meaning or meant I am somehow distinct. Sadly, it’s a con, we’ve been made polluters in the pursuit of distinctness and “experience”. The avian tourism industry doesn’t necessarily do anything for your personal development, but it certainly drives another nail in the planet’s coffin.
By refusing to fly and being loud about it (some would say obnoxious) I hope that I can try and shift the narrative here. Perhaps if enough individuals loudly demonstrate that time is up for flight culture, not just in voice, but in money, votes, and other forms of pressure, then we have a real chance to stop further planetary destruction. It’s a big ask, and a big task, but it’s necessary.
I don’t want to end on a negative note however, because I think giving up flying was one of the best things that I’ve done in recent years. I hadn’t realised how much of my own home country I hadn’t seen, the spaces already at my fingertips and how easy it was to access them. I’d forgotten that travelling was meant to be part of the holiday, not something to be tolerated on route. By being forced to ask how I was going to get to places, I also was forced to think about how best to use the time I was there. To some extent I feel the ease of flying cheapened the whole experience of travel for me, and now I value it so much more. I promise you, refusing to fly is one resolution you will not regret.
OCS Media and Research Team
The latest in climate science and policy from the OCS team.