To fly or not to fly: that is the question
The strange relationship between flying and slow travel
Flying is probably a bit of a strange topic for a blog dedicated to slow travel and, as an advocate of human powered slow adventures, you would imagine me to have a a really clear and definite position when it comes to this mode of transport. While I appreciate local adventures and I totally agree with the idea that you don't need to fly to the other side of the world to experience wilderness and excitement, I have to admit that many of my trips have involved flying at least to reach my starting destination and get back home. Based on this, I would feel very hypocritical if I was to blame people for using flights or to state that slow travel should be done completely without flying.
Trying to become a more sustainable traveler (or actually an all-around more sustainable citizen), I have questioned myself on whether I should consider completely stop flying and what follows here are my personal considerations. I definitely don't pretend to have any easy solution or scientific education on this topic but I believe there is enough information available to start questioning our behaviours and to act as a more responsible citizen and consumer.
One of the most frequent topics of discussion when it comes to travel and sustainability, is the environmental impact of flying: it is a fact that the airline industry is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and that potentially one simple short haul flight in a year can jeopardize virtually all your daily efforts in trying to become more environmentally friendly. This conclusion has triggered the flygskam (flight shame) movement with more and more people pledging to become flight free and to use alternative means of transport for their holidays and day to day transport needs.
It is a really difficult topic for me to address, where positions seem to very polarized (like so many other discussions these days) but nevertheless I will try to share my opinion, hoping to generate some constructive discussion on this matter.
This graph doesn't really leave much room for discussion and, in addition to this, while other forms of transport are quickly moving to alternative resources and will therefore reduce even more their emissions, when it comes to aviation, although considerable studies and researches are taking place, it is definitely unlikely that we will see electric flights any time soon.
End of the argument; should we all go flight free then?
Apart from the fact that it is honestly easier said than done and that for many of us flying is not exclusively related to holidays but it is also strictly linked to work, I personally believe that being able to reach further afield destinations has also its positive impacts:
traveling is essential to build bridges through different cultures, opens minds to different traditions and I believe that flying, by facilitating the exchange of ideas and values, has played a major role in building a more open minded society than what it used to be 50 years ago.
tourism plays a really important role in the economies of many developing countries, contributes to conservation, employment and stopping flying would definitely affect them negatively, like we have seen during the pandemic.
A recent research has also calculated that half of aviation emission have been caused by 1% of the world population / frequent flyers; obviously this doesn't mean that, since we don't fall in the 1% we also don't contribute to the problem, but it helps put things into a different, more objective perspective.
Is there another solution?
While it is difficult to even use the word "solution" when facing such major issues, instead of the two polarized positions that contribute to this debate, I believe there can be some sort of middle ground position too. Between those that will give up flying completely and those that will ignore environmental impact of it, I think we can still find a compromise and which I would call "being a clever flyer".
It involves becoming more critical when it comes to flying, just with some simple action:
reduce the number of flights you take in a year: just like countries and companies have set reduction targets, you can also have your own. Start counting how many flights you took last year: I'm pretty sure the enjoyment of your travels won't be affected by this reduction. Can you fly somewhere and come back with a different transport? That would make a really interesting trip and cut down your flights already by 50%
travel for a longer duration: if you are flying, make it worth by spending a longer period in the destination. With super cheap flights, some people will fly even for a simple day trip: that's definitely something we can do without (and don't even get me started on the so called flights to nowhere!)
travel in economy and travel light: the carbon footprint of premium class seats is higher and the emission of the aircraft will also be affected by its weight
fly direct: a high percentage of the aircraft emissions happen at the take off and landing stage so a direct route (shorter and with only one take off/landing) will be more efficient
be selective about which airline you choose: the emissions produced by flying the same route can be affected by several factors, including of course the aircraft model (skyscanner has a really useful tool to highlight the most efficient flight)
carbon offset your flight: this is another minefield where opinions are very much divided between those supporting carbon offsetting schemes and those that don't see this as a viable option. I'm not a scientist or an expert so I don't feel I can contribute to this discussion but I do believe offsetting can only play a part to tackling the problem and that we need to focus on how to reduce our emissions in the first place and the value of offsetting should be incremental to the reduction.
Where does all of this leave me on the initial question?
While I can't say that I will stop flying completely, I can definitely say that I will be more critical, reducing the numbers of flights I take, look for alternative means of transport and go on more local adventures that will require minimal forms of powered transport. I think this is a target I can achieve and if more people would take this approach, it could already make a big difference.