Environmentalism and Flying: There Is No Plane Answer


August 4, 2023

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Environmentalism and Flying: There Is No Plane Answer

Kate Burke

4 Aug, 2023

We are living in a society saturated in awareness: awareness of news scandals, awareness of the contents of the Kardashians’ fridges, awareness of the environment and the role we play in its destruction. However, an awareness of the imminent climate catastrophe, more often than not, does not translate into action (other than sometimes posting an aesthetic infographic to an instagram story, or buying into a trendy sustainable deodorant brand).

It doesn’t help that our society is also saturated in an awareness of what everyone who went to our primary schools, our Gaeltachts, that one random house party, is doing. The compulsive need to share our experiences can often get in the way of our best intentions for the environment, and nowhere is this more prevalent than in the travel economy. 

During the pandemic, when travelling abroad was more or less brought to a halt for the average person, the once ubiquitous sensation of FOMO ceased – at least a little bit. Now that airline travel has returned to pre-pandemic levels, and rising, the itch to take a weekend break to Lisbon, or London, or Lanzarote is back in full swing. 

Most people strive to form identities through their consistent actions, whether that be obtaining top 0.1% status amongst Phoebe Bridgers’ listeners on Spotify, going for espresso martinis at Cafe en Seine every single Friday, or only shopping in second-hand shops. When our self-perception comes into conflict with how we act, an uncomfortable psychological state known as cognitive dissonance emerges. After all, what are we if not a sum of our actions? When it comes to identifying as environmentally conscious, and actually pursuing environmentally conscious actions, cognitive dissonance can be felt acutely. 

Air travel’s harmful impact on the environment is well known, but the demand for air travel is only increasing. This reluctance to avoid air travel is largely due to lack of viable alternatives when travelling abroad. In the western world, climate change is often viewed as a macro, rather than micro, problem; with macro, rather than micro, solutions. On the individual level, desires to lead an environmentally friendly life can often stand in conflict with our desires to explore the world and see family and friends abroad. It is much easier to swap out elements of our diet and lifestyle to more sustainable alternatives, precisely because there are alternatives. I am more than happy to eat Linda McCartney sausages and use my keep cup for take away coffee, but am I willing to stop travelling abroad by plane? Probably not. 

There are an admirable cohort of people who have given up air travel in favour of slower, and usually domestic, tourism. The consensus among many of these people is that “you don’t gain time through flying, but lose a future for coming generations”. These people are making a huge, and largely selfless, sacrifice in the name of something much bigger than themselves: the planet. This is something that the majority of people are unwilling to do due to the sense of powerlessness in the face of impending catastrophe. It is also difficult to make a sacrifice like this while watching the inaction of much of the rest of the world; particularly the blatant disregard for the environment certain celebrities have displayed through their use of private jets for minutes-long flights. 

It seems unfair that the average person might experience eco-guilt or flygskam – a Swedish term for “flight shame” – when it is just 1% of the global population who are responsible for 50% of flight emissions. A large share of this cohort are corporate flyers, who usually fly business class which results in more emissions per passenger (due to more seating room), and a significant portion of emissions come from private jets. In 2019, 10% of all flights leaving France were private jets, half of which travelled less than 500 km. Transport & Environment, Europe’s leading clean transport campaign group, produced a report revealing one private jet can release two tonnes of CO₂ in one hour – the average person in the EU produces approximately 8.2 tonnes of CO₂ in an entire year. 

While finger wagging about the carbon emissions that resulted from the average person filling a seat on a packed Ryanair flight to Paris Beauvais can sometimes distract from the heart of the issue, there are certain steps we can all take to help mitigate the problem:

Choose an airline with the newest aircraft possible for your route – German non-profit Atmosfair is a useful source of information. 

Choose economy class: business and first-class seats take up more space and therefore create more carbon emissions per person.

Reduce the weight of your luggage – the heavier the load on the plane, the more fuel used.

Taking off and landing are the most fuel intensive stages of a flight, try to avoid lay-overs if possible.

Consider buying partial or full carbon offsetting. Carbon offsetting is the practice of paying to plant trees or invest in renewable energies, so that the net emissions should be zero. There are mixed feelings on the usefulness of this, and whether it is just a way for wealthier people to clear their conscience, but if you decide to do this, look out for the United Nation’s “Gold Standard” certification.

As an island nation, it is more difficult to travel abroad without flying. However, we should follow in France’s footsteps and only fly domestically when absolutely necessary, not when there’s a €9.99 Kerry to Dublin flight sale. 

While these can be helpful tools – what is the real heart of the issue?

Until the aviation industry has managed to produce and use sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) to fly planes, or develop electric planes, there are no environmentally friendly options other than abstinence. 

While Ryanair claims to be the “greenest and cleanest airline in Europe”, this is largely due to the fact that they pack passengers in like sardines, so their carbon emissions per passenger are lower than other airlines. In fact, a report stated in 2019 that of Europe’s ten biggest CO₂ emitters, nine were coal-fired plants and the tenth was Ryanair. Since the publication of this report, more and more coal-fired plants are being decommissioned, however Ryanair only has plans to grow. 

Governments need to step in and take a firmer stance on pushing airlines to contribute more towards carbon off-setting. Increased taxes on aviation companies can create revenue to fund research and development on SAFs and the future of sustainable aviation. Tax breaks can be given to companies who give extra holiday days to employees who opt to travel by train, or even by ferry. Nudge theory economics can be used to encourage people to seek alternatives to flying when travelling. 

Because without alternatives, nothing will change.


1 Comment

  1. Georgina

    Really enjoyable read! Great solutions posed.


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