Debate: to fly or not to fly; or ‘the plane’s going anyway’

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Giving up flying: the debate

We’d love to know what you think about this debate, between David, treasurer of Transition Town Tooting, and Dave of about whether giving up flying has any effect on climate change. Here’s a bit of background. David and Dave are both members of a south London ‘Philosophy Club’ – 15 members, who take turns to host the club at their homes on the first Wednesday evening of each month. They discuss a different topic each month, accompanied by food, drinks and general merriment. Recently, the topic was about flying – and whether, in the face of climate change, we should stop doing it.

The topic caused lots of controversy – and actually, one member decided to stop flying altogether because of it (three other members already don’t fly). David’s position was that it didn’t matter if he didn’t fly, because the flight that he didn’t buy a ticket for would happen anyway, and it would be much better to avoid driving or unnecessary consumption, which would have immediate results in terms of reducing carbon emissions. The debate wasn’t conclusive, and so Dave asked if we could continue it here. David agreed. His position is below, and underneath is Dave’s response. Let us know what you think.


1. David (Transition Town Tooting): the plane is going anyway, whatever I do

The continued and escalating emission of greenhouse gases from human activities evidently negatively affects the viability of life on earth for humans and other species. The emissions from aeroplanes have a greater impact in terms of greenhouse gases per passenger mile than any other form of transport, particularly due to the increased effect of emission at high altitudes, and this area of human activity is also rapidly on the increase due partly to the increase in flying in emerging economies. So it would undoubtedly be good to act to reduce the environmental impact of air travel as soon as possible, just like all other greenhouse gas producing human activities. I seek to argue that individual action is relatively ineffective however, and that it is governments that need to act.

Some people choose not to fly given the negative climate effects and, while I agree such a choice might be worthy or inspirational, it has no direct effect on global emissions. If I personally choose not to fly, it does not reduce the CO2 emitted or stop the plane flying. Not only will another backside take my seat on the plane, the 80,000kg behemoth will take to the air anyway and the fossil fuels required to power it will not be altered. My choice will be immaterial.

Ascribing carbon emissions to me if I take a flight is also misleading. It is mathematically spurious and serves to distract from who is really responsible. I do not affect aircraft emissions by choosing whether or not to fly. The current norm is for carbon emissions from flying to be allocated to an individual, broadly calculated by dividing the emissions of the entire flight by the number of bodies on the plane. This is erroneous and arbitrary because, as above, the plane is flying anyway. Allocating CO2 to the individual distracts us from who is actually responsible: the corporations who fly the planes and the governments who legislate to allow them to fly. Until governments act to restrict flights or stipulate clean energy must be used, the negative environmental effects will continue. The same applies to other major greenhouse gas sources like power, housing and land transport where the individual can only make small impacts.

Not procreating aside (already achieved, tick), for me there are much more effective climate change combatting actions than choosing not to fly. My day-to-day travel choice in London for example can have an immediate direct climate impact. Every time I cycle and walk instead of driving I am having that direct impact.

In the current set-up it requires a mass movement of people worldwide to stop flying to reduce the number of flights and the greenhouse gases they emit. I do not believe this will happen in the near future. In fact the opposite is likely to happen. Only radical action by governments worldwide to legislate to control airline activity and mandate cleaner energy options will reduce air travel emissions. I can lobby my MP or get out on the streets with XR to push for this. In the meantime, I am better off using my limited energy to reduce global CO2 in ways other than refusing to fly.


2. Dave ( as long as there’s demand, the aviation industry will continue to drive climate change

We both understand the damage caused by the aviation industry, and we both understand the potentially apocalyptic consequences of climate change, so we don’t need to dwell on those things. This is about the individual’s contribution to that damage. I’ll organise my responses into various headings:


Ironically David, you were the one who introduced me to the importance of eco-footprints. You gave a talk in which you explained that humanity has a 1.6-planet footprint and rising (it’s now 1.7), which means that we need 1.7 planets to keep living as we are. The figure for the UK is 3, and for the US, 5. So we’d need 3 planets for everyone to live like Brits and 5 for everyone to live like Americans. As we only have one planet, that’s a very dangerous situation, which isn’t going to change as long as so many of us insist on flying.

But by your logic, if passengers don’t need to share the overall footprint of a flight, then that can extend to every industry. So everyone can fly, drive and consume as much as possible without affecting their footprint. Everyone would have an eco-footprint of zero, however they live. No, the footprint of a flight has to be shared by its passengers / customers. Where else is it going to go? Ultimately, if humans are to survive, humanity’s footprint has to come down to below one planet – and that’s impossible as long as we’re all entitled enough to believe that it’s OK for us to fly.

Revenue for airlines and oil companies

Each flight ticket bought increases revenue for airline and oil corporations, which will continue to concentrate wealth, which will be used to corrupt democracy (which will also prevent your preferred solution – that governments do something about it). Airline and oil lobbyists will continue to put pressure on governments to ensure that they build more runways / airports, that they don’t regulate their industries properly, and that aviation fuel remains tax-free and aviation zero-rated for VAT (which means that airlines can reclaim VAT on their purchases, even though they don’t have to charge it).

Also, it’s this revenue that causes flights, rather than whether your bum’s on a seat or not. If the airlines have less revenue, their ability to put planes into the air is reduced. The more money they get, the more flights there are. Every flight you take is more money for the aviation and fossil fuels industries, which increases their power and means more fossil fuels are burnt. So let’s stop giving them money.

Government and corporations should ‘do something’

Leaving aside the fact that they won’t (it would be bad for economic growth), are you really saying that as individuals, we shouldn’t do anything to contribute to sustainablity / democracy / better communities etc. until and unless governments force us to do it? In that case, why are you in the Transition movement? You must care – the state didn’t force you to do it. Plus recycling, buying organic, cycling, installing renewables, growing veg – we shouldn’t do any of those things until the state makes us do it?

Also, all parties know that coming out against flying would damage their chances of being elected.

The right example

People in Transition excusing / promoting flying provides an excuse for people thinking of giving up to keep flying. And of course if rich Westerners can do it, why can’t everyone (soon, all 10 billion of us)? It’s a recipe for disaster. You’re not going to change things alone. But if lots of people decide to give up flying, aviation revenues will fall and so will the number of flights. That’s not going to happen if we don’t start with ourselves and give up flying. I think it’s the job of people like you (Transition) and me ( to inspire people to do the right thing. If you’re helping to give people justification to continue flying, then you’re helping contribute to climate change. Btw, Rob Hopkins doesn’t fly, apparently.

Why fly anyway?

There’s something decidedly unpleasant about rich Westerners’ poverty tourism, destruction of cultures and once beautiful places like Majorca, Goa or the Thai islands, bringing pollution, concrete and consumerism. This article says it beautifully. If you go on package tours, you will never see the real country. The dances, songs, performances you see will be staged. You won’t get to meet locals, apart from waiters, shopkeepers, bartenders. They will see you only as one of many – a source of money.

It does feel important that we get around our planet at least once in our lives, to meet, talk with, play with, do business with and fall in love with people from different cultures – otherwise we become isolated from each other, which breeds resentment, misunderstanding and fear. But let’s be a bit more adventurous than flying. When you’re young, just travel, overland. Cycle, walk, hitch-hike, take the train, bus, horse and cart, sail. Then you’ll really experience places and people. Make it worth it. Don’t damage the world you want to see with air travel. Then later, when you have a family, career, home – help make your own region beautiful, so that you can take holidays close to where you live. You’ll have experienced the world, but you won’t keep damaging it by flying.