It’s virtually impossible for those who live on relatively isolated islands (depending on your career) to avoid ALL air transportation. But there are approaches that can help at least reduce air travel. At the very least, one can purchase offsets. Being a New Zealander is a classic example.
No fly zone: I didn’t catch a plane for a year and saved 19 tonnes of Co2
A year without air travel taught me the path to carbon neutral won’t be easy, but I learned I could inspire others to act
Mon 4 Nov 2019 14.01 EST
What is the single thing that you could do that would most reduce your carbon footprint? Take your bike to work rather than your car? Dig up your lawn for a vegetable garden? For me, an academic scientist living and working in Auckland, New Zealand, I reasoned that the most significant thing I could do was to stop flying.
In 2017 I flew 84,000km. I made twenty day trips to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city. I travelled to the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia to attend conferences and work on joint projects with other scientists. All of this made me accountable for around 19 tonnes of carbon dioxide that year, nearly three times that of the average Kiwi.
I was flying as if I didn’t believe in climate change. Even though I am not a climate scientist this was not a good look, so I committed to not getting on a plane at all in 2018.
Globally, aviation accounts for something like 2-3% of greenhouse gas emissions. While it is not our largest problem, it is one of the most carbon-unfriendly activities that we individually have control over.
My pledge not to fly garnered a variety of reactions. Cynics would almost immediately point out that my plane would fly anyway and conclude that my gesture was just empty virtue signalling. This is a variant on the argument that New Zealand’s farming sector often falls back on: if we cut our dairy production, someone else will gratefully pick up the slack.
This is only true if no one else follows your lead. For my year, if I could persuade 300 other people not to get on that plane, then it wouldn’t fly. Tonnes of carbon would stay in the ground. So as I criss-crossed my beautiful country by train, bus, and ferry, I shared #nofly2018 on social media.
In most parts of the world, it has probably been a century or more since “man catches train” made headlines, but not so in New Zealand. The neo-liberal reforms of the 1980s saw our intercity rail network atrophy, and today, the passenger train from Auckland to Wellington runs only three times a week. When I arrived in Wellington that Easter by train, my trip made national news.
There must have been something in the air.
By the middle of the year, I had discovered a Facebook group that connected flightless Kiwis, and was watching the Swedish flygskam (flight shame) movement go global, led by the inspirational Greta Thunberg.
By the end of 2018 it was clear that some planes had not flown.
It also became apparent that it would have to be less about not flying and more about some of us choosing to flying less. According to Statistics New Zealand, the number one reason why Kiwis fly overseas is to visit friends and family. Like me, many New Zealanders weren’t born here. While some of us do fly for business or to get a winter tan in Bali, many of us travel for love and friendship. Love will always beat shame.
It’s also important to realise that the costs of not flying are not equitably distributed. A decision not to fly earlier in my career would have hurt my international profile and my ability to attract research funding. Responsibilities for child-care still largely fall on women, which means they have less freedom to take the extra time away from home that travel by train or bus entails. The greatest responsibility to reduce air travel falls on a privileged few.
Air travel is not going to disappear completely, but nor does there seem to be a technological fix on the horizon for aviation emissions. We may see electric air taxis in our skies soon, but the best we can hope for on longer-haul flights are incremental gains in fuel efficiency. This is a problem for a country like New Zealand that aspires to lead the world on climate, but which relies on tourism as its largest source of foreign exchange.
This leaves carbon off-setting, where additional tree planting or forest regeneration is undertaken to absorb emissions. When it comes to off-setting, New Zealand has options. Pinus radiata, the mainstay of our forestry industry, grows rapidly here, gorging itself on carbon dioxide as it grows. To offset our current level of emissions from air travel, New Zealanders would need to plant around half a million hectares of pine forest.
Massive new pine plantations strike many of us as a less than desirable trade-off. As an island nation, we have a unique natural heritage, already impoverished by large scale land clearance and facing new threats from climate change. Unfortunately regenerating native forest does not have the same appetite for carbon dioxide as exotic pine, at least in the short run. To offset with native forest, we would need to nearly double the size of our national park system.
What’s not to like about new national parks? Plenty, if your livelihood depends on one of the many hundreds of farms that stand to be repurposed as a massive carbon sink. Even in New Zealand, a country with a national grid powered by more than 80% renewables, we face some hard choices.
New Zealand is steeling itself to make these decisions with a commitment to a carbon neutrality by 2050 that will soon be embedded in legislation. There are those that argue that the decisions we make as a country will have no impact on the climate. It is true that we only account for 0.2% of global emissions, but if others follow our lead then our impact will be significant.
My year of trains, no planes, and electric automobiles taught me that our path to carbon neutrality will not be easy. But I also learned that individual acts can inspire others.
Fly if you have to, offset if you can, but fly less.