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Flying halted at a moral crossroad: coronavirus and climate change

For nearly two weeks we have been confined in our homes, isolated from friends and family, and restricted to one short trip outside every day. Trapped inside it is difficult to not dream nostalgically about past holidays. As we sit gazing out of the window, we yearn for the chance to get on a plane and travel to a faraway sun-soaked corner of the world. In this surreal dystopian lockdown, we crave the seemingly endless open spaces; running along powdery white beaches, meandering through verdant forests and hiking up boulder-studded peaks. We miss this sense of absolute freedom that we are currently denied.

Certainly, it will be tempting, once all this is over, to book a stream of holidays to escape from our overly-familiar hometown. Yet, if this pandemic has shown us anything, it is that travelling is not a necessity but a privilege that we have been taking for granted.

The travel industry will undoubtedly be one of the biggest victims of the coronavirus pandemic. According to Flightradar24, the global flight tracking service, data reveals that flights have drastically decreased; with major airlines having cancelled up to 90% of flights in response to government orders. Airline companies have been crippled as lockdown ensues across the globe. The extent of damage is indicated by the recent collapse of the regional airline Flybe after all flights were cancelled. Equally, British holidaymakers have been left stranded in Spain after Ryanair and EasyJet have stopped flights to the country. The travel industry has ground to an abrupt halt after the foreign office advices against all but essential travel. As the pollution clears from the skies, it seems dreadfully ironic that, in a cruel twist of fate, a global pandemic has achieved what climate activists have been fighting for: discouraging people from flying.

The flygskam movement in Sweden which translates as ‘flight shame’ has been gaining momentum during recent years. The anti-flying movement plays upon individual conscience to decrease carbon emissions. However, for the majority of travellers this guilt is not enough to dissuade them from flying. While there are dramatic consequences of climate change – melting ice caps, rising sea levels and mass coral bleaching – it is difficult to visualise our own individual impact. Yet, in 2016, Dirk Notz and Julienne Stroeve scientifically proved that “observed Artic sea-ice loss directly follows anthropogenic CO2 emission”. In this rapidly-shifting age of climate change, flying is – and should be – a controversial decision.

Every day, thousands of Brits hop on a jet from London to America for an extended weekend trip before returning home again. Yet, this has real and drastic consequences for the climate. According to the Online Carbon footprint Calculator, a return-trip from London to Los Angeles produces 2.62 tonnes of carbon – equivalent to the weight of an African Elephant. Examples of these trips, such as by actress Emma Thompson when she flew from Los Angeles to London to join Extinction Rebellion in 2019 are extremely hypocritical. Yet, she is by no means the only self-professed ‘climate activist’ who regularly decides to board a plane, seemingly disregarding their own values.

This is not to say that planes are the worst offenders of carbon pollution. Indeed, those who picture their ideal holiday floating along in a cruise ship should definitely reconsider their travel itinerary. Personally, the idea of spending weeks cramped in a cruise ship with obnoxious British passengers is a deterrent in and of itself. However, for those needing actual facts – a cruise ship emits three times more carbon emissions than a plane and swamps low-lying coastlines in the process. Just know that if you ever feel tempted to board a scenic icecap cruise you will be accelerating the destruction of the Arctic. It is rather fitting that IceCap Tours class their trips as the ‘Adventure of a Lifetime’, as if they continue to run them, it is highly probable that the polar icecaps will not exist beyond our lifetime.

Unfortunately, personal decisions alone will not stop global warming. Yet, this ‘flight shaming’ movement has the potential to incite change from large corporations and governments. When a person decides to cut down on flying it will inevitably have positive knock-off effects. Reducing demand will cut down the amount of daily flights and in the long-term could even prevent airport expansion. If coronavirus has highlighted anything, it is that business meetings that involve travelling half way across the globe are not necessary. Meetings can be quite easily done online – saving money, time and most importantly the climate. While businesses and governments certainly have a responsibility, change is usually initiated by the people – thus, we play an integral part in changing the landscape of travel in 2020 and beyond.  

You might, after this stream of uncomfortable facts, come to the conclusion that I am ‘anti-travelling’ in general. However, this is not the impression that I am trying to give. Like most, in this difficult time, I am craving to escape the confines of the house and explore unfamiliar landscapes beyond the pages of the newspaper. Hopefully, this collision of the pandemic and climate change will highlight that there are better alternatives to plane travel.

The easy option to alleviate guilt is carbon offsetting; where passengers pay to ‘make up’ for the carbon emissions that their flights produce. However, this option is understandably controversial. Carbon offsetting certainly doesn’t have immediate results as trees take years to grow and reabsorb the carbon from the flight. Equally it encourages wealthier passengers to relieve their consciences without reducing their flying consumption. A far better alternative is to ditch flying in favour of trains which emit 90% less CO2.

Naturally, travelling by rail tracks or road is called ‘slow travel’ for a reason. Yet, abandoning the hectic fast-paced air-travel has its advantages. There is certainly something unwinding about sitting on a long train journey watching the landscape blur across the window. On one trip while interrailing, we spontaneously got off the train at Albi, a medieval French city with terracotta walls and vine-shaded gardens. We swam in the river fully-clothed as the evening light washed across the houses on the opposite bank. It is a moment that I treasure, partly because the beauty was so unexpected. Travelling by plane does not allow for such deviations. Trains allow travellers to be adventurous, to take a detour from the itinerary, to find a hidden gem that has not been trampled on by tourists.

Albi, France

There are of course places that are virtually impossible to visit without flying. Yet, what this pandemic shows is that no travel is a necessity. We should view flying as ‘luxury’, not as the norm. Instead of following in the footsteps of others to the bucket-list locations, we should open our eyes to the beautiful places on our own doorstep or use our imagination to navigate unconventional journeys. Undoubtedly coronavirus will have a devastating impact upon the human race, yet this dark time offers unexpected rays of light. The reduction in planes has meant that the natural world is healing around us. We have been given a lifeline of hope that if we alter our personal actions over the coming years, the effects of climate change can be greatly reduced.