It’s a flying shame
A travel editor gives up planes… for a year
Flygskam is catching on in the unlikeliest of quarters. The Swedish word meaning “flight shame”, coined in 2017 and taken up by teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg, is steadily being co-opted by those who make a living from jetting off around the world — with pen in hand, that is.
All a little odd, on the face of it at least. You might, after all, consider travel writers an unlikely tribe to turn on the very act of getting about the globe: it pays their bills and, anyway, the link between emissions from planes and its contribution to climate change has been well established for years.
So why the u-turn? What’s going on? Is all this merely, dare anyone whisper, a guilt-ridden — suddenly holier than thou — rearguard action? The casting of stones from (very thin) glass houses?
In the most recent Granta magazine devoted to travel (with the issue’s title Should We Have Stayed At Home? heavily suggesting an affirmative answer), editor and travel writer William Atkins memorably remarked that any long-haul flight “can plausibly be described as an act of violence”. He goes on to say that his contributors were “discouraged from flying” for their research (although it is not made explicit how many air miles were eventually totted up by his globetrotting scribes).
Meanwhile, the veteran travel journalist Michael Kerr, an occasional contributor to The Daily Telegraph, announced in 2019 that he was “trying to give up taking the plane to work”, subsequently upgrading this on his Twitter masthead to a blunt statement that he is “no longer flying to work”. He has launched a website, Deskboundtraveller.com, with a strong feet-on-the-ground slant. How many flights taken not-for-work is left unstated.
Elsewhere, the Irish travel writer Manchan Magan, a travel documentary maker and contributor to The Irish Times, once partial to soaring off to South America, India and Africa for travel tomes, has written of his “intention to give up flying abroad on holidays”.
Early in 2020 he describes his Damascus conversion to greener ways: “I could never have predicted a year ago that I would be writing this article proclaiming my intention to give up flying abroad on holidays.” Instead, he hopes to travel more by train to see Europe “slowly”, although he admits it will be “hard to stick to my commitment”.
Then there is the British Lonely Planet writer Gavin Haines, yet another terra firma convert, who reported in 2019 that he had “slowly weaned” himself off aviation. This decision was brought on during a eureka moment on a diving trip to Tioman Island in Malaysia, after resurfacing from a bleached coral reef that had probably been damaged by warmer waters caused by climate change.
Up above, he spotted a plane soaring in the sky and considered his carbon emissions of around 1,000kg to get to and from the country: “There would be people on Tioman, I reflected who probably didn’t emit that in a year. Suddenly flying looked like the cigarettes I used to spark up and stub out in disgust. I felt compelled to kick the habit.”
Joining this cabal of eco-conscious travel scribes, up steps Helen Coffey, travel editor of a national newspaper no less, The Independent, with the publication of Zero Altitude: How I Learned to Fly Less and Travel More.
Aviation emissions are responsible for two per cent of all global emissions
Extraordinary, perhaps, that a travel editor should quit flying, even if only for a year — the basis of her book (her twelve months conveniently covering some of the travel lockdowns during the Covid pandemic). Coffey’s long-term goal, she admits, is simply to “fly less” and, given that her annual emissions from flying was previously 9.3 tonnes of CO2, as she announces early on, a cynic may consider this is not exactly much of a commitment (although she has now completed three flight-free years in a row). Her nine tonnes is, after all, more than the average annual carbon footprint in Britain of 5.65 tonnes of CO2 from living in general, including flights, heating their home, driving their cars and so on.
For Coffey, the moment of realisation that she needs to change her ways comes when she is interviewing Anna Hughes, the founder of a group called Flight Free UK that encourages people to give up flying for a year and see how it goes after that. She is left “reeling from what feels akin to a religious conversion: my aviation epiphany” when she learns of the damage caused by flights, the contrails of emissions at high altitude multiplying the effects of global warming compared to cars or trains.
The statistics Coffey offers upfront are that passengers on domestic flights are responsible for CO2 and non-CO2 emissions equivalent to 254 grammes per kilometre, while for long-haul passengers this figure is 195g, for diesel car passengers it is 171g (the amount for regular-petrol cars is not provided), on buses 104g, and on domestic rail journeys 41g. Coach travel per passenger kilometre comes in at 27g, while Eurostar scores best with a lowly 6g.
Most people are, of course, travelling many more kilometres when they fly. So “a long-haul flight produces a load more emissions,” says Coffey.
Overall aviation emissions are said to be responsible for two per cent of all global emissions and worldwide passenger numbers are due to double to 8.2 billion annually by 2037, according to a prediction made by the International Air Transport Association. All these stats are delivered efficiently in the opening passages of Zero Altitude, setting up Coffey’s stall. Planes are to blame for 12 per cent of transport emissions worldwide, she says, while trains cover one per cent and cars 75 per cent: “So cars are clearly a big problem too. But the one big difference is that technology already exists commercially that can help decarbonise the automobile industry; electric cars are on the market.”
The difficulties associated with decarbonising flights are covered one by one. Sustainable fuel is complicated as it is expensive and its production can have a negative environmental impact: “Various biofuels come from ‘virgin crops’, not from waste; land is used for ‘energy’ crops, including palm oil, rape seed or soy… they’re a leading driver of deforestation and are a nightmare when it comes to biodiversity”.
Hydrogen fuel would require tanks four times as big as current kerosene tanks — plus it is currently four times more expensive to produce. Electric planes require heavy and cumbersome batteries weighing about 50kg to compensate for every 1kg of kerosene; impractical for long-haul flights.
Offsetting schemes are a good “last resort” if you really must fly, says Coffey, but “double counting” of trees planted in forests, for example, is an issue and “what you’re buying is an amount of emissions that has already been saved”. I.e., the plane you are travelling on is still pumping out gases and creating more global warming despite any “savings” being bought. Meanwhile, greenhouse gas removal technology tends to require a lot of energy to run machines and is not available at anything near the scale required.
With successive governments refusing to put a tax on aeroplanes — and “frequent flyer” laws seemingly a long way off — all the logic points towards people themselves having to change habits and learn to fly less as there is no “magic wand”, Coffey concludes.
To demonstrate this, in between chapters quoting experts analysing the aviation industry’s soul-searching over emissions, she takes a trip to Scotland by the Caledonian Sleeper (set up by a PR) to go for a walk in the Highlands, badly miscalculating the length of her hike but enjoying the adventure nevertheless, with a knees up-style singsong at a pub at the end of one day’s epic ramble.
Coffey does not wish to ‘shame’ others into stopping flying
She catches trains to Rijeka in Croatia, following advice on connecting rail services offered by Mark Smith, the train guru behind the Man in Seat 61 website (seat61.com) — although she gets stuck in Paris on her return due to cancellations. She takes a ferry from Harwich to the Netherlands and goes cycling around parts of Amsterdam few tourists visit, feeling “adventurous, exciting and pioneering” about her trip: “I reflect on how much I’ve been able to see and do in such a short space of time. And all of it new and fresh; none of it feeling like it contributed to the overburdening of the city. I genuinely feel good about the places I’ve spent my money. I genuinely feel like my visit might have had a net-positive impact.”
After considering a cruise to the United States — impossible due to pandemic travel rules — Coffey instead takes another ferry from Marseille to Tangiers in Morocco, where she spends more cash on local businesses, attempting to avoid big multi-national companies milking tourists and whisking money out of the local economy. As if to highlight this, she splashes out on a carpet in Fes after a salesman tells her: “Your face shines bright with goodness, like the skin of the moon.”
Another episode sees her hitch-hiking in the company of her Independent colleague Simon Calder, from London to Oxford; hitching rides being a “green” form of travel as the person is driving in that direction anyway.
Rather oddly, Coffey also describes attempting to pass her driving test during one of these colourful break-out “travel” chapters. She admits that this sounds like a daft thing to do when writing a book about giving up flying for carbon emission reasons, but adds that: “Life is all about compromise. If I’m shutting down options in one area, I want to open them up in another, to feel my horizons expanding even as people tell me going flight-free will never take off. So back off, yeah?” Her writing style is both direct and at times, casual, almost slipping into slang.
Coffey admits that she is “not, by nature, a very adventurous person” yet these stabs at travel without flying have pushed her out of her “comfort zone” opening up “a world of possibilities…. I may have stopped flying, but I feel like I have finally started travelling”. She “hopes” she will stay that way although she is aware of the importance of tourism in many economies across the globe and how some tour operators are more careful than others regarding money contributing to local people.
By the end, Coffey has — if you like — well and truly woken up and smelt the coffee. She calls on politicians to introduce flying taxes to curb demand sped up by the burgeoning growth of low-cost airlines since the 1990s, which appear, of the face of it, to have democratised travel, although she points out that 70 per cent of all flights in the UK are taken by 15 per cent of people. “When we talk about flying, we are really talking about an elite activity,” says Stefan Gossling, a professor at the Linnaeus University School of Business and Economics.
Many such figures are quoted at length in this unusual-but-intriguing book that zeroes in on the effects of aviation, which — as Coffey herself highlights — is responsible for a tiny percentage of worldwide emissions as things stand (2 per cent), providing great enjoyment to travellers and vital cash in so many places. Yet Coffey does not wish to “shame” others into stopping flying: “The flight shame movement has been consistently mistranslated as ‘flight shaming’ in the media.”
Instead, she hopes that her readers might look at themselves and perhaps change their habits — although she is far from being the first author to make the suggestion. Leo Hickman’s entertaining and thorough The Final Call: In Search of the True Cost of our Holidays, published in 2007, covers similar ground, while Richard Hammond’s recent The Green Traveller: Conscious Adventure that Doesn’t Cost the Earth includes many extremely practical tips.
The issue of the huge effect of driving within global “transport emissions” does feel rather side-lined, along with the financial importance of tourism to the world economy (generating $8.8 trillion in 2018 and providing 319 million jobs, as Coffey admittedly highlights in one chapter). Then of course there is the insulation of homes, recycling, going vegan and using “clean” energy… are we ready to go all in?
Well, perhaps a little of flygskam — and a few less Ryanair flights to Prague — might be a start… especially if you’re a travel scribe.
Tom Chesshyre is author of Slow Trains Around Spain: A 3,000-Mile Adventure on 52 Rides
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