Is it time to start feeling guilty about flying?
Flying has always meant freedom for me. But as the world slowly wakes up to the devastating impact global air travel has on the climate, is it time to kick the habit?
I was 20 years old before I first travelled by plane (a long-haul flight from London Heathrow to Sydney, Australia, no less) but I’ve been making up for lost time ever since.
Europe, Asia, South America, in-flight entertainment and complimentary booze – cheap air travel meant I could live a lifestyle only accessible to a privileged few just a generation before.
Now we were all members of the jet set, comrade.
A first-world problem
But as much as air travel has enabled me to experience some of the most glorious locations this planet possesses, it has also begun to feel like a slightly grubby vice.
Just like factory-farmed meat, sweat-shop fashion or dubiously-sourced diamonds, it’s getting harder and harder to ignore the ethical quandary frequent flying leaves us in.
And make no mistake, this is a ‘first-world’ problem.
Recent figures from the UK’s Department of Transport suggest that 10 per cent of English residents are responsible for almost half of all overseas flights taken out of the country. The top one per cent of most frequent fliers, meanwhile, account for a whopping fifth of all flights.
Could it be true? I’d been a bona fide member of ‘The One Percent’ this whole time?
The carbon cost of a jet-set lifestyle
Travelling by aeroplane pumps such a stupendous amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (as well as creating warming clouds courtesy of those fluffy white contrails) that it obliterates the efforts of even the most environmentally-conscious recyclers and re-users amongst us.
A return flight from London to New York generates nearly one tonne of CO2 per passenger – equaling an entire year’s carbon emissions for citizens of many of the world’s poorest countries.
Of course, Greta Thunberg – the 16-year-old climate change activist currently making world leaders look bad – knew exactly what she was doing when she eschewed flying in favour of an environmentally-guilt-free sailboat for her transatlantic journey last month.
Disembarking at a Manhattan marina after two weeks at sea, her message of climate emergency would have been utterly undermined had she waltzed through the cabin doors of a Boeing 747 trailing several tonnes of carbon dioxide in her wake.
The ethical travel options
So, where does that leave us? Those who have defined most of our adult lives by our love of travel, of faraway destinations, of exotic cultures and small trays of indeterminable cuisine?
But fooling yourself into thinking you can ‘offset’ your annual flight emissions through fastidious recycling and refusing plastic straws just won’t cut it anymore.
Unfortunately, there’s nothing currently which can replace the sheer ease of heading to the airport and finding yourself transported to the other side of a continent just a few hours later.
And that makes me sad.
I, for one, will cross my fingers that the carbon-free dream of electric aircraft finally takes flight like its proponents have promised. Or that pressure on industries to reign in their carbon impact builds to overwhelming levels.
But I’m not hopeful.
Until then, I’ll try to temper my urge to hop on planes for the sheer hell of it. I’ll investigate overland travel options. And I’ll take advantage of travel experiences a little closer to home.
For me, the dream of international air travel may not be over, but it has been temporarily grounded.