The Lure of Travel, the Shame of Flying

If you care about your impact on the planet, you should stop flying

Air travel is a huge contributor to climate change. A new global movement wants you to be ashamed to fly.

When it comes to the environmental costs of flights ‘we need to figure out how to turn that shame into action’

Most of the friends I have in Oaxaca are Americans, most have money, and most love to travel—usually by air. And they tend to take several long-distance trips a year. These are smart people who understand (at least I think they understand) that aviation produces enormous amounts of carbon pollution.

Yet these folks are expats who have family in the U.S. or elsewhere. They are retired and yearn finally to indulge the urge to see the world. They have personal connections abroad or would create them. Flying seems to activate this kind of personal globalization in all its ambiguous consequences, and there are millions of travelers like them.

What are the costs of this sort of indulgence?

Air traffic currently accounts for about 3% of global emissions, which is three times more than the total emissions of a country like France. Traffic is growing by 4% per year and is projected to double by 2030. This is in complete contradiction with the objectives of the Paris agreement, which will require halving current greenhouse gas emissions by around 2030. With the growth projected, by 2050 the aviation sector alone could consume a quarter of the carbon budget for the 1.5°C target, i.e., the cumulative emissions from all sources that cannot be exceeded to limit global warming to this target.

Technical progress toward more efficient planes and better organised airports will have only marginal impact at best. Real change can only be achieved by a massive transition toward biofuels or a dramatic reduction in demand.

And neither biofuels nor reduced demand are likely to happen soon. Putting it another way: a one-way flight from London to New York for each traveler in economy class will “put an extra 1.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide in the air—about as much as taking a round-trip 15-mile commute every day for a year in a fuel-efficient car.”

So the question of whether or not to give up or restrict one’s flying typically becomes an ethical and very personal one. For me and my friends in Mexico, Oaxaca has recently improved its air service options, and with more airlines and more flights operating, we’re more tempted to use them. Bus travel within the country is much less polluting, and the buses are good. But if they have the money, most will choose to fly.

I fly to the U.S. maybe once a year to see family. I don’t like what air travel has become and I don’t want to contribute to climate pollution. Others will have different needs and convictions. Americans fly more than most anyone else in the world (and contribute the second-most pollution of any country). They are not going to quit flying but they should think long and hard before making any trip. They should also think long and hard about the systemic and political changes that the climate crisis demands. Shame and personal guilt are not enough.