Forget Flying: Why Flying and Sustainable Travel are Incompatible

While many of my friends and acquaintances consider me completely barmy to go off on holiday, on my own, loaded down with a backpack, or fully laden panniers, the aspect of my travels that arouses most incredulity is my refusal to fly.  I have never needed to forget flying, simply because I have never flown through choice at any time in my life: I hated the experience, loathed airports and their associated queues, the hours of waiting around and the necessity of arriving and departing miles from anywhere in an environment that bore no relation whatsoever to the country I was visiting.

I say this, not with any sense of being holier than thou, but in part, as an explanation of the type of travel I enjoy: ie, where getting to and from your destination is a positive, integral and, at times, exciting part of the total experience of the holiday.  However, any amusement on my friends’ part at my travel modus operandi, is matched by my incredulity at their addiction to binge flying.

Here, I am not thinking about families who save hard to afford a couple of weeks in the Mediterranean, or a winter skiing holiday.  I would not fly to these destinations, but understand why others, with different priorities, do.  But I do know plenty of people, particularly among the Guardian-reading chattering classes, who would have starved rather than have bought a South African grape,  choke on the thought of an Israeli orange, throw up their hands in horror at anyone crossing the threshold of a Primark store, yet happily fly off on long and short haul trips two or three times a year.

Environmentally, the case against flying is fairly conclusive:

  • The UK, in absolute terms, generates more flights than any of the other EU 25 countries
  • CO2 emissions from UK aviation approximately doubled 1990-2000, whereas CO2 emissions from other UK activities reduced by about 9%
  • Between 2000-2030 aviation CO2 emissions are forecast to double again, whereas other activities are set for a substantial reduction in emissions
  • By 2050 estimates of the extent of CO2 emissions from aviation range from an increase of four times (from more favourable Department of Transport figures) to a more realistic 10 fold increase
  • Emissions from aviation, if unchecked, could equate to the entire carbon budget for the whole of the UK in the next few decades
  • Aviation emissions also include other substances that have been estimated to create 36 times more damage than that from CO2 alone

In addition, aviation has, over the years, enjoyed much more advantageous treatment than other forms of transport and other areas of the economy:

  • The emissions from international aviation were excluded from the Kyoto Protocol and all associated target setting
  • Air travel is under taxed  in comparison even wi†h motoring and its real cost has plummeted in last 15-20 years, even allowing for the recent  increases in Air Passenger Duty (APD)
  • This compares very favourably with above inflationary fare increases in other forms of transport, particularly the railways
  • UK government is committed to a  60% reduction in Co2 emissions 1990-2050, but is also set to support a major expansion in aviation activity
  • So, in order to offset aviation’s estimated rise in emissions, the rest of the UK economy would need to reduce by 71-87% instead of the currently planned, and already extremely challenging, 60%.

Some of the above figures come  Predict and Decide, a report by the Environmental Change Institute (ECI) at Oxford University, commissioned to review the evidence of the impact of aviation on climate change.  Published in 2006, its draft findings were used in Stern Report, December 2005.

Predict and Decide also came to some very interesting conclusions about the social impact of the increase in flying over the last two decades:

  • The greatest growth has been in international leisure flights – there are now five overseas holiday flights for every one overseas business flight made by a UK resident
  • Much of the recent expansion in flying has occurred because better-off people are flying more
  • There is little evidence that those on lower incomes are flying more
  • Flying, therefore cannot be regarded as a socially-inclusive activity
  • The UK is increasingly developing an air-dependent culture for some in higher socio-economic groups

These findings, according to Dr Brenda Boardman, Emeritus Fellow at the ECI:

“Expose once and for all, the myth that budget airlines are spreading the opportunity of exotic travel down the line to all social groups.”

Interestingly, this and other investigations carried out during the “boom” years of the mid 2000s found that Britain suffered from a  £17b tourism deficit, because for every £1 spent in UK by an overseas visitor, a UK resident spent £2.32 abroad.  So, given that holidays in general, and foreign holidays in particular, continue to remain out of reach for the majority of the UK’s poorest residents,  they conclude that making leisure and tourism more socially inclusive could be more effectively achieved by  widening UK-based leisure activities,

So, not only am I happily able to forgo flying, I positively avoid a form of transport that, if left unrestricted, will have catastrophic consequences for the planet, but is also socially divisive and operated by certain companies for whom the term, “unacceptable face of capitalism” could have been specifically invented.

Let Dr Boardman have the last word:

“This is an age in which people fly to New York for the weekend, have hen parties in Dublin, go shopping in Milan and get themselves a dentist in Budapest.  Can we really say all these things are necessities?  We should get back to thinking of flight as something special.”

Statistics from:



Tyndall Centre

National Statisitics

Global TGI



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