It’s 2.50am in the morning on the 4th January and I’m at Manchester bus station. My journey began in Belfast 13 hours earlier and it has got another 3 hours to run. The novelty of listening to a Stuart MacBride thriller while actually being able to see the dark Scottish rain wore off long ago. It’s cold, wet and all I want to do is crawl into bed.
What on earth led me here? And am I mad?
I’ve always really cared about climate change and recently I discovered that emissions from flights are by far the largest part of my carbon footprint. In 2017 I took 10 short haul return flights and then added a long haul return to Australia for good measure. According to the WWF calculator, travel amounted to a whopping three-quarters of my 20-tonne carbon footprint. For a sense of perspective, to meet the UN climate change targets we all need to reduce our footprint to 2 tonnes a year by 2050.
I am not alone in this desire to fly — a recent estimate suggested that aviation could consume a quarter of the safe global carbon budget by 2050. Worse still, because planes release the carbon dioxide high in the atmosphere, their emissions have 2–4x more impact than travelling on the ground.
If you are serious about reducing your carbon footprint then you have to do something about flights. Changing to LED lightbulbs or cycling to work, though good in themselves, are just not in the same ballpark in terms of impact.
So I decided to start 2018 off differently. Having spent new year with my in-laws in Northern Ireland, I chose a 16-hour overnight bus costing £54 over a 1.5-hour flight costing £45. In doing so, I reduced the emissions from my journey by about 75%. My wife, perhaps wisely, decided to stick with the plane.
On hearing this, my friends and family thought I was mad for an array of different reasons — some of them easier to dismiss than others.
First up is the simple ‘but the plane is going anyway’ argument. Whilst undoubtedly true, taken to its logical conclusion it suggests that we are all at the mercy of a system we have no control over. I disagree — ultimately airlines respond to customers, so if there was a sustained drop in demand for a particular route then eventually they would reduce it. Denying our agency is just shirking our responsibility.
Second, are those who have faith that new technology will march to our rescue. It is true that planes are becoming more efficient — Easyjet has reduced the emissions from its planes per passenger kilometre by 31% since 2000. However, whilst their speculative investment in short-haul electric planes offers hope, even if they prove to be viable we are still decades away from them becoming a reality.
Third are the carbon off-setters. So long as you pay to capture the equivalent emissions somewhere else, they say, then you can fly as much as you want. Off-setting, particularly when using a reputable provider like Gold Standard, can only help. Yet the risk is that it absolves you of responsibility for flying and can even lead you to do more of it guilt free! Furthermore, it is impossible for any project to guarantee that none of the emissions reductions would have happened anyway and that they can never be reversed. The debate on off-setting rages on.
There is no silver bullet and it’s hard to get away from the need for individuals to do something. But giving up flying completely, as a number of my friends have done, seems to me to be an impressive but unrealistic option for everyone. There are many benefits to seeing the world and I can’t suggest people no longer see their family and friends who cannot be reached by other means.
That said, when did we all stop seeing flying as a luxury and a privilege? If, like me, a total moratorium is not your bag then surely we can at least use a bit more moderation.
So as I sat gazing out of the window for hours watching Storm Eleanor knock over every wheelie bin from Carlisle to Luton, I came up with a set of principles that I think I can live by:
- I will no longer fly — for business or pleasure — when there is a train or bus that can do the job just as well (Paris, Amsterdam, Brussels, Glasgow, Aberdeen, Newquay to name a few of the worst offenders);
- I will avoid flying to places just for short breaks, either going for longer to make the most of my flights, or staying closer to home if my time is too limited.
- I will continue to use Gold Standard to offset any flights I make and encourage anyone I travel with to do the same.
So will I be recommending the 16-hour special from Belfast to London to my friends and family? Even though I passionately believe in the need to tackle climate change, would I do it again? Perhaps… but it was made a lot easier for me by being on my own and being able to work flexibly. It’s hardly a realistic option for all.