In 2017, I took my last flight.
I knew before I went to Vienna with my friend Amy that it was going to be my last flight. I had already reached the point of active discomfort about flying, and I knew that, holding the values I do, I couldn’t continue.
What follows is simply an explanation of how and why I made the decision to stop flying. I know many people who have a vague sense that air travel should be avoided, and I hope that what follows can help them think this through.
The Aviation Industry
Aviation is essentially a fossil fuel industry.
This alone is a reason to avoid flying.
To limit global warming to 1.5 degrees, we need a cut of 15% to our global emissions, each year through to 2040 (Carbon Brief – calculated excluding net-negative emissions). This is in stark contrast to the positive average global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions growth rate of 1.5% over the past decade (UN Emissions Gap Report 2019).
I am wary of focusing too much on discussing ‘which consequences happen when’ within climate science. This is because these discussions are mostly a distraction: we discuss exactly how much harm we will produce through known harm-producing activities so we don’t have to confront (and stop) undertaking the activities which cause such harm.
I think you should of course take the time to consider the details of climate science, just not here. I’m sure most people only glanced at the paragraph above with the statistics in, because actually, such detail is not the point.
Instead, this is what should be our focus –
- GHG gases cause harm, including the taking of life.
- The burden of this harm falls unevenly.
- An ethical commitment to life means taking responsibility for mitigating such harm.
The problem is, many, many things cause harm, and many of our decisions can be taken as violating an ethical commitment to life (you only need to read Peter Singer/talk to my friend Alex Rattee). These decisions warrant serious consideration, and I think it is true that our lifestyles are incredibly difficult to justify as at all ethical.
However, my focus here is flying because I believe the almost unquestioned use of aviation is particularly egregious.
What is so bad about flying?
a) Incredibly carbon intensive. Flying uses a vast amount of fuel each day. This is partly because of the sheer distances being travelled by airplane, but it is also a very carbon intensive form of travel in its own right! The carbon intensity of flying ranges (e.g. a fully-booked, more efficient plane taking a long-haul flight vs. a half-empty, inefficient short-haul flight). Nevertheless the emissions impact of flying can be over ten times greater than that of low-carbon alternatives such as rail (Imperial Aviation Report). Aviation emissions are especially bad because they are released into the upper atmosphere. There’s debate as to how much worse this makes their impact – a recent Nature paper suggests it increases the warming impact by 2-5 times.
b) Growing. By all accounts, the aviation industry is growing. The only place where this is not the case is Sweden, which in the past year has seen a 4% decline in the number of flights (Reuters) – attributed to the Greta-effect (am I the only one worried that it only dropped 4% in this context?) By 2050 aviation will account for around 25% of the UK’s emissions. (Carbon Brief – and this is before we update for net-zero).
c) Aviation emissions are not covered by law. Aviation emissions are excluded from Kyoto, Paris, and the UK’s Net Zero legislation (Essential reading on this from the AEF, also available in v. condensed form in this twitter thread). The ‘Chicago Convention’, agreed in 1944 by a then much smaller air industry, prohibits countries from imposing jet fuel tax and VAT on international flights.
Aviation emissions are meant to be accounted for by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) who have proposed a market-based mechanism, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). Under this, countries’ airlines are given allowances to emit carbon, and if they exceed their allowances (which they will) then they must buy offsets from other sectors. Even if successfully implemented (some large states have yet to commit) the scheme, due to begin this year, only addresses growth in emissions above their level in 2020 – emissions below that level will be unaccounted for – and it only addresses them via offsetting (a whole other conversation)!
d) Difficult to decarbonise. Alternative jet fuel usage hit 7 million litres in 2018, amounting to just 10 minutes of global jet fuel usage (source, @rutherdan). To quote from the Imperial Aviation Report: “Aviation is not only a highly emitting activity, but one of the hardest sectors to decarbonise via new technologies. Improving the efficiency of aeroplanes can only provide an emissions reduction of 0.8% per annum, and other alternatives such as biofuels or hydrogen are not yet ready for commercial deployment. Therefore, curbing demand for aviation and replacing flights with low carbon travel where possible will be an essential part of the solution alongside technological innovation.”
While technological solutions will most likely be found, these aren’t going to be ready before the 2030s at the earliest. This means the only way to reduce emissions in the 2020s at the sort of scale we need absolutely depends on us flying less. (Why the timing is so important is something we can definitely discuss if you’re unsure why!)
Where does this leave us?
Indisputably, the GHG gases released by the aviation industry are immense, and they are incredibly difficult to mitigate.
Some people are hopeful that the offsetting plans ICAO have for the industry will be a success, and others are happy to attribute responsibility for managing our emissions as a whole to collective governance.
However, I’ve not been able to do this because I am niggled by the following question –
Is this what justice looks like?
We exist in a world where the pollution of greenhouse gases is causing increasing harm, and where the climate is being dangerously destabilised.
We are far from managing this risk well. As established at the beginning, we are overwhelmingly unlikely to limit warming to 1.5 degrees. Instead, we are likely to see 3 or 4 degrees of warming, and possibly beyond.
And in this context, we have to ask – is it just to fly?
Many friends have expressed concern when I have told them I won’t fly again. It seems to them like a foreclosure of freedom (“you’ll never be able to go to Australia”). And in some senses it is. However, I am of the opinion flying is a freedom I never really should have had in the first place.
Many friends talk about the additional costs – both in terms of time and money – of alternative forms of transport. My feeling about this is that the additional price of alternative transport better reflects the actual costs our travel involves. The modern aviation industry externalises such costs. The costs still exist, they are just shouldered by others.
Given that the necessary condition of exploitation is unequal exchange, I think it is right – at least to some degree – to view the aviation industry as exploitative. We travel cheaply, in exchange for destabilising the climate – the main costs of which we are privileged enough to be sheltered from.
Frequently nowadays, I wonder how we will look at the aviation industry in 100 years’ time.
I think we will be horrified that we were willing to jeopardise and negatively impact so much of life for a holiday/crucial job opportunity/seeing a friend. (I’m aware as I write this, that the costs involved in such choices are not equal. For example, unlike many people, I have no close family overseas. And that makes these sorts of decisions all the more difficult).
I guess what I want to get at, is that I think we hold ultimate responsibility for our decisions to fly and the harm of doing so.
Air travel is a luxury. We existed in a world without it once, and we can do it again, without sacrificing the things we think are most important (love, community, creativity, fullness of life).
Friends making similar decisions at the moment tell me giving up flying has been a way to live more hopefully. And I know from my own experience what I once felt was a loss no longer feels that way.
At the moment, we are holding onto cheap air travel, while listening to the cries of those from small island states for whom warming of 1.5 degrees is an existential threat.
Can we really be serious about the importance of a ‘just transition’ and about climate justice, while booking a flight?
My answer, at least, is no.