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The Aeroplane in the Room

aeroplane environmental impact airplane

I have never been on an aeroplane. No, never.

It didn’t start out as an ethical decision. I just grew up in a low-income family, and my parents didn’t want the stress and expense of travelling abroad. My first trip out of the UK was a school trip to France aged 17, where we took the ferry. I wanted to see more of the world and just assumed I would get planes when I ventured further afield in the future.

I didn’t think too much about the environmental impact. I had a vague awareness that flying wasn’t good for the environment, but then neither is driving. It seemed like one of those things you just couldn’t avoid.

I’m not sure exactly when my mindset shifted, but I think it was after reading George Monbiot’s Heat. It’s essentially a manifesto for how we could avoid climate catastrophe without changing our behaviour. For almost every aspect of our lives, Monbiot came up with a way of doing this. Flying was the only exception.

So here’s what it comes down to: we can’t keep flying as much as we are and avert the worst impacts of climate change. When I discovered this, I knew I would have to give up on the idea of air travel.

What’s so bad about flying?

Many people I speak to are unaware of just how environmentally damaging flying is. Like me, they compare it to driving. But there are a few factors which make it worse for the planet.

Firstly, planes emit more carbon dioxide per mile than other forms of transportation. But their environmental impact is also amplified by their other engine outputs and the altitude at which they fly – any emissions go straight into the atmosphere.

Planes emit the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide, along with water vapour and soot. These have complicated effects on the climate which are difficult to measure, but it’s believed that the total impact of a plane is about twice that of its carbon dioxide emissions. And of course, flying allows us to travel much further than we otherwise would, further contributing to emissions.

In the UK, flying is estimated to be responsible for 13 to 15% of our greenhouse gas emissions. This may not sound like much, but remember that most people only take a short flight once a year, and a longer flight even less frequently – so the minority of people who fly regularly are having a huge impact.

Our emissions targets

The UK government has set out plans to reduce our carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. It’s also announced plans for a third runway at Heathrow airport, which could lead to an extra 700 planes a day using the airport. It’s hard to see how these things are compatible.

People are already flying more as flights continue to get cheaper. The government is not going to do anything to discourage this – quite the opposite. Change will have to happen on a personal level.

We can no longer afford to ignore the environmental impact of aeroplanes. Is it time to give up all unnecessary plane #travel? #airplane #aeroplane #environment #climatechange #globalwarming #sustainability

When is flying justified?

This is unlikely to be a popular opinion, but I believe we need an end to “frivolous flying”. That means no jetting off to Lapland for Christmas, and no package holidays to Spain. And we have to remember that the further we travel, the more emissions we create.

There’s nothing wrong with travel for the sake of travel, but maybe we need to stay closer to home. By vowing not to use planes, I’ve for the most part limited myself to Europe. But is that really such a limit? I’ve barely even explored my own country yet. How many of us Britons have been to Greece or Thailand or the USA, but never the Lake District or the Yorkshire Dales or the Highlands? These places are all still on my bucket list.

And there is an incredible amount of Europe to explore. I dream of living in a camper van and travelling slowly all over the continent, taking in every place along the way.

Back to the question of when plane travel is justified. Of course, many of us have loved ones abroad, and I’m not suggesting we should never see them again! Also, some people fly for medical treatment and other important reasons. Flying sometimes is the only option.

What about flying for business? In the internet age, it seems a little silly that we have people flying everywhere to go to meetings and the like. Many could be done over Skype or using other technology instead. Perhaps we need to start structuring our businesses in a way that doesn’t involve so much travel.

Obviously it’s not down to me to say what is and isn’t an acceptable reason to fly. We all need to take responsibility for our own actions. But imagine if we all committed to only flying when absolutely necessary – that would make a huge difference.

Contradiction in the environmental movement

At an environmental discussion I attended last week, someone complained about an environmental group which had recently protested at Heathrow airport. Apparently, one of its members had flown off to Paris the next day, and two others were flying away for Christmas. There seems to be a disconnect in many of our minds when it comes to our own actions. This is especially true when it comes to things we don’t want to give up, like eating animal products, driving, and of course flying. We need to be honest with ourselves about the impact of our actions. Giving up plastic straws is great, but it sends the wrong message if we then jet off to Bali.

Then there are those who fly halfway around the world to volunteer at environmental projects. Though people do this with the best of intentions, it may do more harm than good when the impact of their flights is taken into account. It would make more sense to get involved in a local eco project.

Yes, giving up (or at least cutting down on) flying involves a degree of sacrifice. It’s certainly a loss of convenience. But we’re reaching a point where our personal convenience needs to come second, or we won’t have a planet to live on anymore. The United Nations has warned that if we don’t act now, all hope of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change will be lost, and we’ll likely experience extreme rises in temperature, droughts, flooding, and more. As George Monbiot points out, those who are most affected by our choices will be the ones in developing countries who will likely never even be able to afford to get a plane.

I’m writing this sitting in the park on a sunny day – it’s so hot that I’ve taken off both my jumper and my coat. It’s February, and as much as I’m enjoying the sun, I find this concerning.

What about carbon offsetting?

Many people now “carbon offset” the impact of their flights. This means putting money towards a green project whenever you pay for a flight. Theoretically, the amount you pay will save enough carbon to offset the impact of your flight. Projects may include planting trees or investing in renewable energy, for example.

There’s a lot of debate over whether this is valid. Some argue it’s just a scam allowing people to feel good about their bad behaviour. My opinion is that carbon offsetting is a good idea if you must fly, but we shouldn’t use it as an excuse to carry on as normal. It’s been suggested that we should offset our flights two or three times to be sure – this is also a good idea, but again, I think we should only fly when necessary.

Being vegan isn’t an excuse for flying as much as we like

Many vegans are quick to point out that animal agriculture, not flying, is the biggest cause of climate change. This is true, and I absolutely advocate for the adoption of plant-based diets – as anyone who reads this blog will know!

But it’s easy to get into a mindset where we think, “I’m already doing so much to help the planet – what’s wrong with taking the occasional flight?” We need to be doing as much as we can, rather than using our existing ethical choices as an excuse.

Conclusion

In developed countries, we have a certain sense of entitlement. We’ve become so used to being able to be, do and have whatever we want that we react badly when told that we need to stop doing something. It’s time we started putting the planet first. Our future depends on it.


4 comments / Add your comment below

  1. I agree with the article. Every day the flights leaving Heathrow kill multiple people with global warming and pollution. Imagine if their bodies were piled up at the front gate at the airport with a sign that everyone had to walk by “these were the people killed yesterday by flights from this airport”. People might think about it differently (there’s an idea for activists to protest more peacefully). But the deaths (of animals too) are more abstract and hard to measure or visualize. I have cut down my flights and offset the rest (I think you are spot on about offsetting, and I do double and triple offset sometimes) but I have taken a lot of flights over the years and to be honest carry around some guilt.

    Your comment “planes emit more carbon dioxide per mile than other forms of transportation” is usually true. On a per person basis, CO2 per mile per person is lower for trains and buses, no doubt there. CO2 is also lower per mile in a small car, or any car with 3-4 people in. But if you drive a petrol/diesel car on your own, with no other passengers, the total CO2 per mile per passenger is about the same as a flight. It may be higher or lower depending on various factors – the most important is the size of the car. A small one generally still beats a flight, while a SUV usually doesn’t if you are the only person in the car. An average size car with one person is similar to a slight. An electric car in the UK will beat a flight.

    Also, petrol and diesel cars spew carbon monoxide and nitrous oxide onto the children walking by on the street, while planes dump their pollution over the ocean. So on a per mile basis I’m not convinced that planes are worse overall, either.

    It may actually be true to say that reducing the total distance you travel is more important than not flying. If you decide to take the train to Paris rather than fly good for you but the CO2 savings of deciding to go on holiday in France rather than China are far higher however you ultimately travel to Paris.

    Most long-haul flights (US, Asia) are about 4 times longer than most 2-hour hops in Europe, and so use 4 times more CO2 (it’s not a precise linear relationship, but fairly close). So I think we need to dramatically cut down on long haul flights for holidays in particular.

    1. Yes it’s definitely a problem that so many people drive around on their own in massive SUVs, it does really frustrate me.

      Definitely agree that long haul flights are the biggest issue. With all flights there’s the problem of the pollution effectively going straight into the atmosphere though.

      P.S. That’s a great peaceful protest idea, might have to suggest it to my local Extinction Rebellion group!

  2. I did a quick back of the envelope calculation and I reckon the number of people killed by flights from Heathrow airport EVERY DAY is likely between 1 and 100.

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