‘Fly less’ movement: Can forgoing flights help save the planet?

Why We Wrote This

For those looking to shrink their carbon footprints, the most glaring problem they may face is reducing air travel. Making the shift to other forms of travel isn’t just economic and logistical – it’s psychological too.

Hyungwon Kang/Reuters/File
An Air Canada flight approaches Toronto Pearson International Airport as the sun rises over the city of Toronto.

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Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist, carried out a personal carbon audit in 2010 after getting increasingly anxious about what he calls climate breakdown. He logged 50,000 miles that year, mostly attending conferences. He realized flying accounted for 75% of the emissions he was responsible for. Two years later, he took the last flight he’s taken ever since.

Like most who have pledged to fly less, he knows his abstention alone won’t do much. But he is part of a movement that is trying to develop a different type of relationship to flying by shifting behaviors and norms, whether that’s institutions opting for more teleconferencing or individuals more mindfully vacationing or visiting friends.

Flying is responsible for at least 2% of man-made global greenhouse gas emissions, and among personal transport options, it is the least efficient. The airline industry has tried to green itself, but with sustainable options often expensive to maintain or in nascent stages of development, it still relies mostly on carbon offsets. But critics say offsets support the fossil fuel status quo.

“Maybe we should feel more grateful about our ability to travel,” Dr. Kalmus says, “and see travel as something very precious and be willing to go more slowly.”

Cheap airfare and package deals make the possibilities of summer travel boundless, but Ana Simeon has an easier time narrowing down her options. She and her husband will stay at home in British Columbia, choosing among the local lakes, mountains, oceans, rivers, and forests for their vacation.

It’s a question of neither money nor time. Ms. Simeon has joined the burgeoning “fly less” movement, making an intentional choice to vacation closer to home and avoid polluting air travel whenever she can. “We don’t need to go farther,” she says.

Ms. Simeon is interested in other cultures and languages, having been born in Croatia and having traveled all across Europe by train as a youth. But she weighs that against the changes she sees around her. From her vantage on Vancouver Island, the most disconcerting is the increasing intensity of mainland wildfires which bring a blanket of smoke to her backyard each summer. “I can see we may have to give up something to preserve livability.”

Like most who have pledged to fly less, she knows her abstention alone won’t do much, that the flight she would have taken will still depart whether her seat is filled or not. But in modeling a different type of relationship to flying, the movement aims to shift behaviors and norms, whether that’s institutions opting for more teleconferencing or individuals more mindfully vacationing or visiting friends. Like the “slow food” movement before it, this newest trend is all about “slow moving.”

“Maybe we should feel more grateful about our ability to travel,” says Peter Kalmus, a California-based climate scientist who began the campaign No Fly Climate Sci, “and see travel as something very precious and be willing to go more slowly.”

‘I didn’t belong in an airplane’

Flying is responsible for at least 2% of man-made global greenhouse gas emissions, but among personal transport options, depending on how packed a car is or how long a route is, it is often the least efficient.

The airline industry has tried to green itself, but with sustainable options often expensive to maintain or in nascent stages of development, aviation relies primarily on carbon offsets. Yet many critics say offsets simply support the fossil fuel status quo, says Dr. Kalmus, who authored “Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution.”

Dr. Kalmus carried out a personal carbon audit in 2010 after getting increasingly anxious about what he calls climate breakdown. As a budding academic at the time, he logged 50,000 miles that year, mostly attending conferences. He realized flying accounted for 75%  of the emissions he was responsible for.

Two years later he remembers buckling in for a flight to yet another conference when a wave overcame him. “I had a really strong visceral feeling I didn’t belong in an airplane,” he says. He hasn’t taken a flight since.

His campaign has drawn many academics, including Toby Spribille, a scientist at the University of Alberta, who has since 2017 reduced his flights by 90%. A conference on conservation held in Hawaii in 2016 was a turning point for him – in which those who should be on the front lines of change were seemingly indifferent to their carbon footprint. Today he insists on video conferencing wherever he can, even if that could hurt his tenure track, and even though he misses the personal interactions.

“I’m one of these people of our time who loves traveling. I’ve been to many countries, and I love it,” he says. “But I have the feeling that the way things are going, with this entitlement and this privilege to fly anywhere, anytime and it’s getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper, that some day our children are going to look back at this the way we now look at films in which people are smoking cigarettes on airplanes … and [say] ‘look at how frivolously we flew back then, we got on an airplane and gave no heed to the collective impact.’”

Flygskam and sacrifice

For now the airplane remains a strong status symbol. It’s a sign of career advancement and of social privilege, where Facebooking and Instagramming faraway vacations is the norm.

But consciousness around flying has grown in 2019, thanks in large part to Greta Thunberg, the teen activist from Sweden who has led global student protests this year and become an icon of a new generation of environmentalism. Her recent railway journey across Europe has highlighted a new word that’s found its way into the Swedish lexicon, flygskam, which means “flight shame.”

The sentiment is driving many disparate movements, like a European one called Back-on-Track, which seeks a return of cross-border night train service, which has been cut in Europe as budget airlines have grown. In 2015 when Back-on-Track started, says Poul Kattler, a member from Denmark, it was split between environmentalists and those like himself who simply wanted what he calls a more “civilized” mode of transport. He got involved because the night train he booked several times a summer from Copenhagen to Basel was discontinued. “But since then I’ve been mobilized,” he says.

It’s much easier for Europeans to give up flying since rail service is robust and distances are much shorter than those in the U.S. or Canada. It’s especially hard for families who live on different continents. Ms. Simeon compromises by visiting her family every two years, spending more time on each visit than if she went annually. Mr. Spribille is leaving in two weeks for Germany, where he has family, but tries to consolidate academic work and vacation into one transatlantic journey a year – not the four he counted in one particularly bad year.

Dr. Kalmus says such decisions entail sacrifice. He forwent a trip that his wife Sharon took with their two young boys to Paris – a seminal moment in their lives that he admits he was sad to miss.

He says if he could have sailed to Europe, he would have. He would have stayed longer, learned more about the language and culture of the place he was visiting, and then sailed home.

He doesn’t see this as backward looking, but an opportunity to frame the movement as one that could enrich lives – and that one day could even enrich travel itself. For him, flying less doesn’t mean limiting oneself. “Without planes,” he contends, “our international experiences could be better than they are now.”

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