The world is significantly smaller today than it was 100 years ago. Now obviously the world is not literally smaller, but the speed at which we can travel across countries and continents has reshaped how we live and exist in the world. These advances have had substantial benefits; however they have also not been without costs. Globally the transportation sector, including road transport, aviation, shipping and rail, is responsible for just over 16% of all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Whilst in the UK, it is responsible for 24% of GHG emissions – making it the single biggest source of climate pollutants in the UK.  Not to mention the health impacts associated with these pollutants.

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Are EV's better for the planet?

Transitioning to electric vehicles forms a forms a key pillar of almost every governments climate policy.

However, we are yet to see the climate benefits of an ever growing electric car fleet, in part due to the rise in popularity of Sports Utility Vehicles (SUV’s) which have offset any reduction in emissions from electric cars. 



Globally, emissions from flying may seem inconsequential, accounting for only 2.5% of CO2 emissions – although when looking at the amount of warming (radiative forcing) flying is responsible for then it jumps to 3.5%. But when you consider that flying is an incredibly elite activity, with only 5-10% of the global population flying each year, with even less flying internationally, those who fly have a disproportionate impact on the climate. Even among the minority of people who fly in a year, it is a small fraction who are responsible for the lion’s share of aviation’s emissions. For example, just 1% of the global population is responsible for half of the billion tons of CO2 released from flying. A trend also mirrored at the national level. In the UK less than half of people step foot on a plane each year and of those that do fly, 70% of flights are taken by just 15% of frequent fliers.

For those of us who fly, it likely responsible for a substantial portion of our carbon footprints (all the emissions associated with the activities of a person or entity). This is because, on a mile-by-mile basis, flying is the most climate damaging way to travel. In fact, flying is probably the single most carbon intensive activity you can do on a per-hour basis. Just one flight can emit more CO2 emissions than many people do in a whole year. Even a relatively short flight, such as from London to Berlin, emits more than three times the emissions that you save from recycling in a year. Maintaining our current flying habitats will be incredibly difficult to square with limiting warming to 1.5C, as called for by the Paris agreement. However, forecasts suggest that the number of flights will more than double by 2050.

Pre-pandemic demands for flights had been steadily marching upwards at a rate of approximately 5% a year, outstripping the pace of any energy efficiency improvements and driving up the sectors emissions (emissions from flights rose by 32% between 2013 and 2018). Increasing demand for flying is also driving the expansion of several airports, including Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton and Manchester, which will not only lock in aviation’s incredibly high carbon footprint, but further increase the demand for flying. One of the drivers of increasing demand for flying, is the huge number of subsidies the sector receives. Unlike road fuel, which is subject to excise duty and VAT (a substantial portion of the cost paid at pump), aviation kerosene, which is used in jet engines, is exempt from tax. Additionally, airline fares are exempt from VAT. The results of these subsidies are artificially cheap ticket prices, which do not reflect the true cost of flying, but instead drive-up demand and reduce any incentive to become more sustainable. Some have tried to estimate the revenue that could be generated if the fuel tax and VAT exemptions were lifted in Europe with a potential sum of €40 billion annually suggested. Until these subsidies are abolished, and airlines pay the true cost of their activities, reaching net zero will be next to impossible.

What about offsetting?

Airlines like to suggest that all you need to do is pay for a few trees to be planted and you can fly whilst keeping your conscience clean. Some, such as easyJet, have gone even further and offset the emissions from all their flights, meaning that you can rest assured that you are flying carbon neutral. If only it were true.

First though, what are offsets? Carbon offsets are a popular tool in climate policy, which work by offering polluters the opportunity to increase or maintain their current level of emissions, so long as they subsidise emission reductions elsewhere – think of it as paying someone else to diet for you. But since they were first introduced, carbon offset schemes have been plagued with integrity issues as industries have sought high volumes of low-cost offsets. The problem is that these offsets tend to be low quality and can therefore have the adverse effect of making climate change worse.

Take the offsets from the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), used by the EU, as one example. Research found that 85% of the offsets failed to reduce emissions, concluding that many of the projects were likely to have happened without the aid of offsets (known as additionality), or that they just displaced the environmental damage to another location (known as leakage). The findings contributed to the EU deciding not to allow offsets to contribute to its climate goals. These issues with offsets are prevalent everywhere. Similar issues have been identified with the offsets used by many major airlines. So why is it that when it comes to national targets, offsets are rightly rejected, but endorsed to tackle aviation?

So, if offsets don’t work, what can we do? Unfortunately, it seems that demand management (reducing the number of flights) will be necessary to ensure that aviation emissions begin to decline today, enabling us to reach net zero by 2050. Whereas there are scalable options available for the power sector (e.g., renewable energy sources) and road transport (e.g., electric public transport and cars), there are currently no proven solutions for aviation. There are some exciting prospects for decarbonising planes, such as alternative jet fuels which are based on renewable energy or biofuels, electric planes and hydrogen fuelled planes, however all of these will take a significant amount of time before they are commercially ready. Even major improvements in energy efficiency won’t be enough. Projections from researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University, suggest that even if planes become substantially more energy efficient, emissions from aviation are still likely to more than double by 2050 (and could even triple if the energy efficiency improvements are lower than expected), if demand for aviation continues to grow on current trends. This would consume a substantial portion of the carbon budget for 1.5C.

What is to be done?

It is therefore clear that demand reductions will be vital over the next few decades. Even the Governments independent climate advisors, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), state that the overall level of flying needs to be managed to reach net zero. But what would demand reduction look like? In Europe, it would mean massively scaling up high speed rail to connect all major cities, as well as placing a much higher cost on intercontinental travel – which accounts for only 8% of flights from Europe, but half of all emissions. Increasing the amount of holiday days everyone gets in a year to promote slower forms of travel. Introducing frequent flier levies, so that the more you fly, the more you pay. For example, someone taking their fifth flight of the year would pay significantly more than someone on the same flight who hasn’t flown yet that year. This would also be the fairest way to reduce aviation emissions, as the burden would fall on the wealthiest who fly the most. These are all actions that governments can and should take, but as citizens there also actions we can all take.

It is important to start by stressing that we are not suggesting that you give up flying completely, you should still enjoy your family holidays, but as a society we do need to have a difficult conversation about how we travel and the need to fly less. And the idea of flying less is slowly building momentum among those concerned about the climate crisis. In Sweden, the term flygskam (flight shame) has become an increasingly popular term, with many celebrities and high profile figures promising to go flight free. Flygskam, unlike its name may suggest, is not about shaming others who fly, but about examining your own actions, with many who opt to go flight free doing so to align their actions with their values. And it’s having an impact. One survey found that a quarter of swedes reduced their air travel in 2018 to limit their climate impact. The movement isn’t just confined to Sweden either, with similar campaigns popping up around the world, including the UK’s Flight Free 2022 campaign.

Although the flight free movement is about limiting the number of flights you take, it is not about giving up travelling altogether. Instead, it is about finding ways to travel that have a minimal impact on the planet. That could mean taking a train or ferry (which have far lower carbon emissions per kilometer) instead of a plane or changing your destination to one more accessible. Trains are one of the best low-carbon ways to travel long distances. The Man in Seat Sixty-One has loads of fantastic resources, which rail guru Mark Smith has put together and includes everything from buying rail tickets, to country specific guides (from Albania to Zimbabwe) and even tips on how to get to Australia without flying. One of the great advantages of trains is that they offer the opportunity to embed yourself into a place, to feel more connected to an area and the people there. There are now a growing number of travel companies offering flight free holidays (e.g., Byway and Responsible travel) allowing you to explore new places without the massive carbon footprint. There are endless possibilities for travelling without flying.

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