Finding futures

A blog about imagining futures, social and environmental change, and doing a PhD…

To fly or not to fly?


Recently I have been mainly procrastinating by crafting a smug blog post about the low-carbon merits of not flying. Thankfully I have scrapped that for a less-smug version because, to tell the truth, I got really quite confused about the whole thing – to fly or not to fly? And does it really matter?


My turmoil about flying sometimes feels like this – but should it? Source: Banksy

This all started with an exasperating few hours spent in the wee small hours the other night trying to book a flightless journey to Sicily for a climbing trip. I googled, I clicked, I huffed and I puffed,  I deliberated and I quietly despaired.  Despite the fantastic help from websites like Man in Seat 61 and Loco2, a train journey to Sicily turns out to be fraught with tricky decisions, unavailable timetables and comparatively high prices.  The temptation to ‘just fly’ grew.

This situation bought out a classic case of ‘cognitive dissonance’ in me – a psychological term which describes the mental stress of having two conflicting ideas and values: on one hand, I have a desire to (continue to) enjoy cheap and readily accessible adventures around the world, such as everyone else around me seems to be having (thank you, facebook).   On the other hand, what I know about climate change and my own disproportionate consumption of resources leaves me with increasing discomfort – even anguish – about flying, to the point that I now try to avoid flying or – if I do fly – accept a lingering feeling of guilt and disappointment with myself that comes with it.

But is this necessary? There are two bits of information which are often banded about in this kind of debate, and they pull me in different directions.  The first is that air travel is the single biggest contributor to our INDIVIDUAL carbon footprints: on average, air travel accounts for 34% of our individual carbon footprints in the UK and so is one area of our lives where we can drastically reduce emissions. If you consider also that the globally agreed target budget of 2 tonnes of carbon per person per year by 2050  would be entirely used up by one return trip to Bangkok from London, then the impact of emissions from aviation seems huge.  However, the other commonly touted number is that globally, aviation accounts for a relatively small proportion of total carbon emissions, around 2.5% (although this rises to 6% in the UK).   From this perspective, aviation is dwarfed even within the category of ‘transport’ by cars and lorries, and more generally by the carbon emissions from electricity generation (~30%),  manufacturing (~18%) and agriculture (~10%).

So what am I to do?

In turmoil the other evening, with thoughts of ‘oh what difference can I make any way?’ creeping into my head and my cursor hovering over the ‘Skyscanner’ tab, I googled – in desperation –  ‘low carbon rock climbing’ and to my surprise, a blog post popped up by Kevin Anderson, a professor of climate and energy and deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research. His first line was this:

“My partner and I recently arrived in Sicily for a couple of weeks’ camping and rock climbing…. As we try to avoid flying we’ve travelled here by train……”

The fact that Anderson describes a cheaper train route to Sicily that I hadn’t previously thought of is only the second best thing about his post.  The first best thing is that the rest of the post has done a lot to reassure me that reducing how much I fly is not a completely pointless endeavour. I have outlined his arguments below, with some information from other sources thrown in along the way:

1. Reducing total emissions is what counts According to Anderson and others’ work at the Tyndall Centre, wealthy, high-emitting nations need to be reducing total emissions by around 10% a year in order to have a chance of staying below a 4 degrees Celsius warming (compare this to the target of 3% here in Wales, and elsewhere).  When you keep this in mind, questions around the precise differences of efficiency between train and plane travel or whether what you save by travelling by train is ‘worth the effort’, rather miss the point.  Besides, as Anderson points out, the savings (of not flying) really are significant: “at a system level, trains have an order of magnitude lower emissions than the metal bird alternative.


Click for better resolution! Aviation emissions show CO2 emissions alone plus estimated radiative forcing as recommended by Defra (shown as being semi-transparent). Medium car refers to 1.4-2.0 litre engine for Petrol and 1.7-2.0 litre engine for diesel. All emissions shown in kg CO2e per passenger per kilometre except for a medium car which is emissions per kilometre for just the driver, any additional passengers would reduce this figure. (2014 Defra emissions conversion factors data) Source:

2. Carbon lock-in By buying a plane ticket we are sending a very clear market signal: build more planes please, and expand airports while you are at it.  What this does is lock the future into a high-carbon aviation infrastructure which is already operating at its maximum conceivable level of efficiency – that is, the jet engine isn’t likely to be getting any ‘cleaner’ any time soon, and so will continue consuming fossil fuels and emitting carbon dioxide at the same rates for as long as the infrastructure created to support it allows.  On the other hand, train efficiency has a lot of potential to improve, and so travelling by train is sending a signal to the industry to make these improvements faster.  Even better, trains can run on electricity which can – and increasingly will – be low-carbon.  When you add to this that one reason that flying tends to be cheaper than going by train is that the aviation industry doesn’t pay any fuel duty or VAT on tickets, then the thought of being complicit in this stacking of the odds makes me squirm even more!

3. When is essential really essential? Anderson has a particular issue with flying to academic conferences and argues that ‘essential’ has become a relative term dependent on things like whether the trip is doable by plane, whether friends are going and whether it’s a nice place to visit rather than any real questions of necessity.  He makes the point that if you were to cram into a small hatchback with four colleagues to make the trip to that ‘essential’ conference in Venice then the meaning of ‘essential’ quickly disintegrates by the time you’ve reached Dartmouth….

The issue of flying in academic culture is a thorny and complicated one (being based in a Geography department myself I am acutely aware of the contradictions between what we study and all the flying it seems to entail). Often academics will point out that slow travel just isn’t feasible when you have to live in the ‘real world’ of busy work life, but Anderson argues that “the real world has us flying half way around the world to give banal 20 minute presentations to audiences who know what we’re going to say.”  In other words, the real world can be bonkers.  He continues: “surely those of us intimately engaged in climate change should, at the very least, curtail our use of the most carbon-profligate activity (per hour) humankind has thus far developed.”

It’s a fair point, and – as he has written elsewhere – if we are to avoid the most dangerous impacts of climate change then we need to radically reduce emissions fast, and someone needs to catalyse these changes. If not ‘us’, the people with the most knowledge about climate change and who also emit a disproportionately large amount of carbon, then who? In fact, in the last few days Anderson’s colleagues at the Tyndall Centre have published an illuminating report which argues that there needs to be a fundamental change in research culture and flying in order to ‘align the walk with the talk’ and therefore provide leadership and engender trust in the climate science messages the community is putting out.  This article about the psychology of inspiration is also an interesting read relating to the production and reproduction of social norms.


But what of the ‘pro-flying’ argument? I am still somewhat confused about what the ‘true impact’ of flying is, and I would be very happy for any enlightenment or other perspectives on this.  It can also be difficult to reconcile the ‘no-flying’ argument with an acknowledgement for how travel can break down personal prejudices, broaden horizons and encourage open-mindedness about different cultures.   But I wonder if reducing flying means relinquishing these benefits? As I pondered in a previous post about ‘green modernity’, perhaps I need to stop framing these issues in terms of ‘reduce, stop, do less’ but more in terms of valuing different ways of ‘doing’ life.   For example, by readjusting to ways of travelling which are more about quality and less about quantity.  As Anderson notes, travelling slowly means travelling less and being more selective, but perhaps I’ll stay longer and make the most of places while I am are there.

cognitive dissonance

Cognitive dissonance: “a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions that are psychologically inconsistent.” Leon Festinger, 1957. Source:

I started out researching this blog post trying to pin down what the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing to do is. This approach caused me, first, a good deal of anxiety and, later, hours spent trawling the net for data.  It resulted not in me finding a definitive answer but in selecting one particular blog which conveniently reinforced my pre-existing – if wavering – feelings.  Perhaps I should have listened to those feelings in the first place. Perhaps my decision not to fly doesn’t have to be justified by ‘rational’ (i.e carbon reduction) reasons (although they do help) because my own instincts are just as, if not more, important tools for making ethical and moral decisions which align best with my own values.  Cognitive dissonance averted? Well, until the next journey, at least!


6 thoughts on “To fly or not to fly?

  1. Really great post! Sums up a lot of my own thinking about the subject

  2. Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it. I am a HUGE fan of Loco2 – I’ve opted for many a train journey over flying because of the help it has provided, a great website – thank you for existing!

  3. really enjoyed reading this too. I also have massive problems with academic conference flying, a Greenpeace&PhD friend has flat out refused on a couple of occasions saying that they just weren’t as ‘essential’ as they were claiming to be. Probably about 6 years ago I said I would give up short haul flights, I went about 4 year without flying, by being skint and making most of my holidays trips to Font in a packed car. After a while the desire for short haul climbing trips got too much and I decided I would allow myself 1 short haul every other year, probably taken for a winter sport climbing trip. I feel I can’t be vocal on this topic though as I am doing my PhD in Peru meaning over 2 years I will take at least 4 long haul flights. In my head I separate essential work flights from holiday flights but feel it works out a bit unfair as although it is theoretically for the greater good (I research extractivism and mining conflicts) the net result is I get to spend extended periods in interesting foreign places and should I really give people who haven’t the privilege to be doing this particular job a hard time for wanting a (affordable) slice of the action? (Esp, if they work hard doing practical caring/NGO jobs that are not that well paid in the UK). There’s an added layer of difficulty in that at least half a dozen people are likely to fly out to visit me, and those are flights taken for pleasure that I to some extent encourage… do I then bear some responsibility for their flying emissions? Dunno where I’m going with this really, but just letting you know there are other people who worry about this also..

    • Hi Ursula, thank you so much for reading my post and for your honest response – I was really glad to read it. I know what you mean about not feeling able to comment (I was quite nervous about publishing this post!) Although I don’t have to travel for my PhD, I have benefited from a lot of air travel over the years so I do feel hypocritical sometimes! But then I try to remind myself that trying – and talking/thinking about it – is surely better than not trying at all. (And 4 years without flying is an impressive effort! I’ve yet to manage that…). Getting these issues out in the open and talking about how we all worry about it is a step in the right direction I think – thank you for your support/joint worry! And good luck with the PhD, it sounds really interesting – perhaps we will cross paths one day!

  4. Hi Anna, just catching up with this. Great post! I have had a similar one with the opposite outcome written in my head for a while, eventually it will arrive on the screen I hope, but you’ve done so much of the work for me now! Let’s just say for now, I am heartened that not everyone has given up trying (not that I have given up, more that my reasoning for when I fly/don’t fly has become quirky and unpredictable!) . Also, to share my experience – it was a lot easier to rack up a 8 year no fly record (but not no travel or fun!) outside of academia and when I had made a commitment and didn’t re-assess all the time/ stopped looking at the price of flights, than it is now I have had to allow the possibility of flying as an option. Really glad you shared your thoughts and findings in a way I can completely relate to! 🙂

    • Hi! So sorry it has taken me a while to reply – thanks for your comments! I’d love to read your blog post when it is up :-). Quirky and unpredictable definitely sums up my decision-making process too I think! I bet you’ve got some good train-journey stories from your 8 year no-fly stint! 🙂

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