Climate change: can we avoid flying?

You might struggle to cut out flying entirely. But there are ways to reduce its contribution to your carbon footprint.

plane with contrails
Credit: revedavion.com/Flickr

Like countless other people – especially the youth activists who have inspired the world this year – I care deeply about the climate crisis.

I try to do my part. I don’t own a car; I get everywhere on foot, by bicycle or on transit. I live in a small flat. I buy few consumer goods (easy to believe if you’ve seen my ratty wardrobe!) I hardly ever eat meat.

But... I fly.

Aviation accounts for more than 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions (and it’s on track to triple by 2050). According to one calculation, each passenger on a round-trip London-New York flight accounts for 1.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions - precisely the amount that, on average, we should each emit in a year to keep the planet in energy balance.

And it’s not just carbon dioxide. Because aircraft emit water vapour and other gases, the climate impact of flying is roughly double that of the carbon dioxide alone.

Some people – from youth activist Greta Thunberg to distinguished climate scientists – have confronted these grim numbers by avoiding flying. I salute them.

But it would be very difficult for me to stop flying. Our programme supports research and action across the world at the interface of climate change and human health. There are times when that requires global travel. And I live across the ocean from my entire family, including my elderly parents and my children.

So here’s how I approach travel: I interrogate every trip.

First, do I really need that meeting? We’re all too busy, and we all have too many meetings, many of them not really necessary. If the meeting doesn’t need to happen, let’s cancel it!

Second, if the meeting has to happen, is my presence really needed? If I’m one of many people around a big table, if my presence won’t change the outcome, if I don’t have much to contribute, I’ll send my regrets.

Third, if my presence is needed, can I do the meeting remotely? Telecommunications technology is now better than ever. If I can give a presentation, or join a discussion, without traveling, I’ll save time, save money, and reduce my carbon footprint.

Fourth, if I do need to travel, is there an alternative to flying? From London, for example, I can get to most of Europe by train. It takes longer than flying – the flight to Geneva takes 90 minutes, and the train journey takes seven hours – but it’s often possible to plan accordingly.

Finally, if I do need to fly, how can I compensate? I can fly coach instead of business class, even if my employer offers business class tickets, because a business class seat has three times the carbon footprint of a coach class seat. I can preferentially fly on the airlines that are most fuel-efficient and that are leading in biofuel use. I can stack my business, holding multiple meetings on a single trip to maximize efficiency. And I can purchase carbon offsets, supporting such efforts as wind farms or reforestation.

How do you approach flying? Do you have other ideas? Does your employer have a travel policy?

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