It’s difficult to reconcile environmentalism with flying – but not impossible


It’s tricky being an environmentalist. The devastation that Hurricane Irma has caused in Florida, and the deadly flooding in South Asia, and Houston, Texas, all serve as pertinent reminders about the imminent dangers of climate change. These events make adopting an environmentalist stance all the more necessary. But it’s one thing to passionately hold onto the principles of environmental protection, and it’s another thing to put those values into practice.

Environmentalists will try to minimise their carbon footprint by reducing or eliminating their consumption of animal products, using energy saving light bulbs, recycling, reducing their use of plastic, avoiding palm oil, and so on. However, there is an activity that is very hard to give up, that makes life so enjoyable, and that’s travel. There is an ethical dilemma between wanting to be a decent environmentalist and the urge to travel to different countries. You can of course travel by car, train and boat – but if you live in the UK and want to visit Asia, Oceania or the Americas, then the only (realistic) way you’re going to get there is by flying.

Unfortunately, flying is the most environmentally damaging way to travel.


The harm caused by flying

The Environmental Transport Association (ETA) informs us that a return flight from London to New York results in a greater carbon footprint than a whole year’s personal allowance needed to keep the climate safe. With warnings that the huge quantities of carbon we’re releasing into the atmosphere could push the planet’s climate system past the point of no-return, it seems vital to alter our lifestyle choices.

Journalist George Monbiot wrote an article back in 2006 titled We Are All Killers – that is, until we stop flying. As Monbiot highlights:

“It’s not just that aviation represents the world’s fastest growing source of carbon dioxide emissions. The burning of aircraft fuel has a “radiative forcing ratio” of around 2.7. What this means is that the total warming effect of aircraft emissions is 2.7 times as great as the effect of the carbon dioxide alone. The water vapour they produce forms ice crystals in the upper troposphere (vapour trails and cirrus clouds) which trap the earth’s heat.”

He adds:

“…I have been discovering, greatly to my surprise, that every other source of global warming can be reduced or replaced to that degree without a serious reduction in our freedoms. But there is no means of sustaining long-distance, high-speed travel.”

This throws into question whether you can really call yourself an environmentalist and still fly.


Changing your behaviour

Monbiot argues that many of us are fully aware of the harm caused by flying, yet we don’t really want to think about it:

“This is now broadly understood by almost everyone I meet. But it has had no impact whatever on their behaviour. When I challenge my friends about their planned weekend in Rome or their holiday in Florida, they respond with a strange, distant smile and avert their eyes. They just want to enjoy themselves. Who am I to spoil their fun? The moral dissonance is deafening.”


Indeed, findings show that this is the case. Concerns about the environment have led the most eco-conscious among us to refuse flying altogether, but these people are few and far between. Giving up meat actually seems to be quite easy. But giving up flying seems like way more of a sacrifice, especially if travelling is something that you’re passionate about.

On the other hand, there may be a way around the dilemma.



If you think of yourself as an environmentalist, there are some ways to fly with a lot less guilt. For example, you can opt for a fuel-efficient airline and choose economy class, rather than business. As underscored in this helpful article, the carbon output per passenger for a return flight from Amsterdam to London is 241kg with KLM in economy, but 730kg with British Airways in business. Moreover, using carbon off-setting – whereby you pay extra to fund environmental projects – could counteract some of that nagging guilt that you feel for flying.

It’s difficult to strike a balance between leading a personally fulfilling life and paying attention to the short- and long-term consequences of your actions. Yet that’s what any ethical and responsible traveller should be thinking about.


About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe

Sam is a writer who is especially interested in space exploration, sustainability, animal agriculture, nutrition, wellbeing and smart drugs. He is also currently writing a book about the psychedelic drug DMT.



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