There is one topic that sustainable lifestyle bloggers and environmentalists tend to avoid: flying. Flying has transformed modern day life. It has provided us with a relatively cheap, safe and convenient way to connect with almost every corner of the planet. It’s opened up incredible travel opportunities which have in turn allowed developing countries to enjoy the economic benefits of tourism. But it is also the most fuel intensive form of transportation and has been a major contributor to our rapidly rising global CO2 emissions. So where does the idea of ‘sustainable travel’ come into the equation? And should bloggers and environmentalists be promoting sustainable living while enjoying the perks of air travel?
I can’t help but ask myself these questions when I see bloggers who have built a significant online following by promoting sustainable living, yet are flying across the globe every few months. And I’m not innocent, either. I have a whole section of my blog devoted to the idea of ‘sustainable travel’. I call myself an environmentalist, yet this year alone I have spent almost 40 hours in the air. This is much more than the average person and increases my overall carbon footprint significantly.
I’m sure I am not the only one to be on the receiving end of comments about the fact that I fly, once it’s known that I feel strongly about climate action. And I’m sure many would argue that if I claim to be an ‘eco-warrior’ then I shouldn’t step foot on a plane. But is that a fair statement?
It’s safe to say that flying isn’t going anywhere. As the middle class expands around the world there will be even more demand for cheap flights. In 2015, the total number of passengers travelling by air in the European Union was 918 million. That’s in the EU alone! It is therefore all the more important that environmentalists talk about this issue openly and speak up when others haven’t yet.
So what does sustainable travel mean?
Sustainable travel has been called many different things, including: eco-travel, eco-tourism, responsible tourism, slow travel etc. For me, all these terms encompass the same idea, that is; to leave as small a footprint as possible in the country you visit, to embrace and respect other cultures, to buy local and to not take part tourist activities which may be detrimental to people, the planet or animals. Having this approach to travel is a great thing and most definitely a step in the right direction - but what about the actual getting there?
More often than not, when people go on holiday, they travel via airplane. Sometimes it’s simply the only option, and other times it’s the cheapest - especially compared to rail travel. We all know that the CO2 emissions generated from air travel are significant, so I won’t bore you with statistics. I will say, though, that the CO2 emissions generated by one passenger on a round trip from London to New York is 2.1 metric tonnes - the equivalent of a three bedroom house. It is also regularly cited that avoiding flying is one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint.
However, if you look at the world’s most polluting industries, you’ll find that aviation actually contributes a very small percentage to overall human-induced CO2 emissions. In fact, the animal agriculture industry produces more carbon emissions than our entire combined global transport system. In other words, if we all consumed considerably less meat, we could continue flying. Furthermore, if we rapidly transitioned to renewable energy to power our homes, then flying may not be such a problem.
You might think of sustainable living as a balancing act. There are certain things that are easier for people to give up than others. Flying is likely to be the thing people would like to give up least. By transforming our other, more polluting, industries and making them more sustainable, this would allow the aviation industry to continue to grow. At a consumer level, rejecting consumerism and eating less meat will have a greater overall impact in carbon footprint reduction than refraining from flying.
Why we shouldn’t stop flying
Critical to increasing your awareness of global issues and personal development is, in my opinion, travel. Extensive travel has almost certainly been a big influence on my journey to becoming more environmentally conscious. Volunteering with endangered species in Indonesia strengthened my desire to protect our ecosystem. Seeing a small island off the coast of Bali overflowing with plastic bottles raised my awareness of plastic pollution in developing countries. Working alongside communities in Nepal who live simple yet happy lives with virtually no carbon footprint taught me how little material possessions matter. Travel broadens your personal outlook, making you more open-minded and accepting - and this is key to improving the world we live in.
Why we shouldn’t criticise environmentalists
To criticise someone for flying is counterproductive, and more than likely reflects that person's reluctance to adopt more green practices themselves. It is also a way to avoid the real issue at hand. While I actively advocate for changes in consumer behaviour, and wholeheartedly believe it has a positive impact, climate change cannot be solved without systemic changes to our economic and social systems. You can either accept the status quo, or you can work towards something better. The latter approach often looks less like an off-grid hut in the woods and more like finding a way to exist in an uncomfortably unsustainable society while also trying to change it.
I would go as far as to say it is unfair to criticise environmentalists for flying. It is to their credit, along with every other person who takes small steps to live more sustainably, that they have removed their head from the sand and educated themselves enough to at least be aware of the issue. As Sami Grover suggested for TreeHugger "we should stop worrying about whether someone is "pure" enough to speak out against climate change and fossil fuels, and instead start embracing anyone and everyone who is ready to take a stand and say it's time for a change".
Now I am back living in Europe, my approach to to travel will always be to avoid air travel and take a train or bus if it’s available, even if it’s more expensive. I’m also an advocate of staycations and really appreciating your surroundings, without necessarily going overseas. But will I hesitate to take a flight to another continent to explore more of our beautiful planet? No. It might not be there for much longer.
"Hypocrisy is the gap between your aspirations and your actions. Greens have high aspirations – they want to live more ethically – and they will always fall short. But the alternative to hypocrisy isn’t moral purity (no one manages that), but cynicism. Give me hypocrisy any day." (George Monbiot, The Guardian)