Source: a shorter version of this story was published on US News & World Report, 22 July 2019
If you knew that a return flight New York – Amsterdam is the CO2 equivalent of one thousand Big Macs, would you fly? The FlightFree 2020 campaign aims to make not flying as socially accepted as vegetarian eating or non-smoking. Travellers in different countries are asked to sign a pledge: stay on the ground next year if 100,000 others sign up too.
By Danielle Batist
For Nour Ghallale-Massa in Brussels, it was an Instagram post by a friend, highlighting the IPCC’s recommended individual carbon footprint, versus the emissions of a flight. She had considered herself a conscious consumer: she was vegan, buying most things she needed second-hand and limiting plastic waste. But it wasn’t until she compared statistics that she had her ‘awakening moment’.
“I was a travelling nomad for a while, taking a lot of cheap flights. And then I saw it in black and white: one flight to Bali equals four years of my total allowable annual CO2 footprint. As soon as I understood the amount of harm I was causing, it felt very hypocritical to still call myself a sustainable person. I haven’t flown since.”
To avoid irreversible climate breakdown, each of us should stay below about 1.2 tonnes of CO2 emissions per year, while most people in developed nations cause more than ten times that amount annually.
It is the empowerment of people like Ghallale-Massa that has inspired Swedish campaign founder Maja Rosén to take FlightFree2020 global. Last year, she convinced 14,500 Swedes to take a year off flying. The effects were beyond her expectations. The Nordic country seems to have set in motion a trend away from air travel, with less flight bookings and more rail bookings. ‘Flygskam’, or ‘flight shame’ has even become a buzzword, particularly among younger travellers keen to be conscious consumers.
Once Rosén translated her original blog We Stay on the Ground into English, she started to receive emails from concerned individuals around the world, keen to bring the campaign to their country. Beyond Sweden, the United Kingdom, Denmark, Belgium, France and Germany all now have local versions of the campaign and Norway is launching soon. Interest from concerned citizens on other continents is growing too. Each country has its own counter to 100,000, and pledgers from any country can join the global campaign.
Worries about the effects of climate change are growing around the world – an international survey by the Pew Research Center survey ranks climate change as the greatest threat to global security. Those concerns are especially strong in Europe and are translating into action this year. Earlier in July the French government announced that beginning in 2020 an “ecotax” will be placed on plane tickets. Sweden already introduced such a tax in 2018.
In the Netherlands, a flight eco tax will be implemented in 2021. The Dutch have had a similar tax before but it was cancelled after one year in 2009 following pressure from Dutch airport executives. With renewed public and political support, the Dutch government is now lobbying for an EU-wide tax. A European-wide citizen petition asking for the same has gained almost 40,000 signatures.
Even the airline industry is re-examining the impact of plane travel: The Dutch airline KLM announced in June a campaign that asks the public to reduce air travel. “When we started 100 years ago, our major concern was your safety,” KLM CEO Pieter Elbers wrote in a letter published on the airline’s website. “Little did we know about the impact we would have on the environment. Today we know aviation comes with another big responsibility – to make sure our children have a planet to explore, as well.”
Beyond GDP growth
Roughly 4.1 billion passengers took to the skies in 2017, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). This number is expected to double to 8.2 million by 2037.
Kimberly Nicholas, an associate professor in sustainability science at Lund University in Sweden, is critical of such projections made by industry itself. In light of the climate goals, she is part of a growing group of academics and politicians who advocate for an economy ‘beyond GDP growth’.
Nicholas, who investigates behaviour change in climate actions, admits Europe is ahead of other continents in changing the social norm around flying. Although her research shows that reducing flying is one of the most impactful ways for individuals to cut their carbon footprint, global policy changes will also be needed to effect mass behaviour.
She likens the flight-free campaign to the global anti-smoking campaign: “We know that the greatest reduction in smoking came from price increases, much more than banning advertising or smoking in public places. In order to cut flight emissions to the levels necessary to stay below the IPCC’s danger limit of 1.5 degrees planetary warming, governments globally will urgently need to stop subsidising flying.”
It can be seen as a climate paradox: behaviour change comes from policy change, but policy change won’t happen without public support. That is where social movements, even in their early stages, can prove crucial, says Nicholas. “Research done last year shows that you need 25% of the population to exhibit a certain behaviour to change a social norm. This means that if a quarter of people believe something, it can lead to a ‘tipping point’ and become the majority view.”
Beyond Europe, Nicholas identifies scientists as the most likely group to instigate such tipping points. “We see a growing number of academics from the United States to New Zealand calling upon their universities to greatly reduce flying. A study out of Indiana University shows that the public finds scientists who fly less more credible. That makes sense to me: if my doctor tells me to stop smoking while he is puffing on a cigarette, I don’t trust him either.”
Other researchers also make the link between ‘leading by example’ and climate action. Cardiff University PhD student Steve Westlake found in his survey that that half of the people who knew someone who has given up flying fly less themselves as a result. This increased to two-thirds of people who did the same if the non-flyer was a high-profile person such as an academic or celebrity. Just 7% said it has not affected their attitudes.
Europe may have the advantage of many countries in close proximity, but the flight-free movement is also gaining momentum on other continents. Canadian Nathalie Laplante took a one-way flight out west to British Columbia twelve years ago, to spend the winter snowboarding in the mountains. During the trip she read British writer George Monbiot’s book Heat: How We Can Stop the Planet Burning, which opened her eyes to the human potential to minimise the climate crisis.
“When I got to the chapter on transportation and the destructive impact of planes, it was like a lightbulb went on. There and then I decided I would look at alternative ways of coming home. It ended up being a 2,5 day train journey, which cost about the same as my flight would have been. It was quite an experience: I had never taken a long distance train before. I loved slowly crossing the country, meeting so many people and developing relationships with them. It never crossed my mind that I would not take another plane for the rest of my life. I would not have been ready to say that then. But now I am.”
Last month, on United Nations World Environment Day, Laplante launched a bilingual flight-free campaign in Canada – the first country to join outside Europe. She recently quit her job, allowing her to volunteer more and spend time with her family.
She says the campaign gave her the courage to be vocal about her no-fly choice. “Our kids are 2, 5 and 8 and they have never flown. We used to live near Montreal airport where they’d watch planes fly over really low. Of course they are intrigued, but they don’t mind. Friends might go to Walt Disney, we say: we watch the movies instead.”
Start in the backyard
Organisers highlight that the FlightFree campaign is not just about what it takes away, but also about the possibilities it opens up. “We still have great holidays”, says Laplante. “There are so many amazing places to discover nearby, it is almost infinite. We often think the grass is greener on the other side, and that Europe has much better railway systems. But I can speak from experience and say alternative ways of travel are possible and fun here, too. I hope that the campaign encourages people to try it for a year, or even for a summer. Once you have one positive experience, it can open your eyes to a different way of travelling.”
Compassion for the planet as a whole doesn’t have to come from visiting faraway places by plane, Laplante argues. “Nowadays we can go online and watch great documentaries about the world. There are so many ways to explore and feel compassion. When psychologists look at why we don’t take the climate crisis serious, they say that people need to be more connected to nature that is close to them. If a forest in our backyard is being cut down, we gather and feel compelled to save it. Travelling locally encourages us to appreciate what we have on our doorstep.”
Anna Hughes, who runs the campaign in the UK, agrees. She explores her home country by bike and when she does travel abroad, she posts videos of her ‘rail and sail’ experiences online to show how enjoyable ‘slow travel’ can be. “I took a train to Copenhagen which took two days. It is OK for it to take that long. It was way more enjoyable than a plane. I had coffee in Cologne, saw the river Rhine and learned about different cultures.”
Although cheaper and better alternatives to flying require policy changes, Hughes believes travellers can use their purchasing power too, to drive demand. “We need to make sure that the alternatives to flying become better and cheaper, but we also need to start taking these public transport journeys more. The campaign is a way for people to try it out. Whether we get to 100,000 signatures or not, we hope that the act of signing up and thinking about it will feed into long term behaviour change.”
Since launching in February this year, Hughes has collected close to 2,300 signatures in the UK. She finds people sharing their personal reasons for joining are most effective in getting others to sign up. Although many pledgers share positive experiences of a newfound love for rail travel and discovery of local natural beauty, there are stories of the sacrifices made, too.
Business trips can become near-impossible: it took one British academic researcher 14 days to reach a conference in China by train. Weddings or hen parties are missed, and – more than catering for a vegetarian friend at a dinner party – talking about not flying can still perceived as socially awkward.
Travelling by plane for what author George Monbiot and others have called ‘love miles’, meaning flying to see family who live abroad, for some is a reason not to sign up. Often, though, the commitment to saving the planet is directly linked to the family they are unable to see as a result.
The FlightFree UK blog features pledgers, including Claire Thompson, who lives in Ireland while both her sons are in New Zealand: “It’s my belief that facing climate change head on involves making big personal choices as well as applying massive pressure to governments and officials to face it too. We’re heading for a catastrophe that we might not survive. My boys’ futures are more important than my need for seeing them. It is heart-achingly hard. But tough times call for hard actions and sacrifices.”
Aviation has among the fastest rising emissions of any industry, and if global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 polluters on the planet. The European Parliament Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) warned in 2015 that if aviation continues to fall behind other sectors in necessary emissions reductions, it may account for 22% of global CO2 emissions by 2050.
The European Union wants the industry to reduce CO2 emissions by 75%, nitrogen oxides by 90%, and noise by 65%. And although criticised for not actually cutting carbon yet damaging the environment, 70 countries recently signed a new Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation.
Some in the flight-free movement call for a ‘cigarette-style’ warning on display when you purchase a flight, informing consumers of the CO2 emissions. Meanwhile, savvy travellers can already check the impact of their journey via online flight emission calculators.
Educating people about these statistics will be crucial for the movement to gain global momentum, says Rosén. ”Last year’s campaign showed me that it is possible to affect people, even if you don’t have a massive organisation behind you. Since we started, so many people have thanked me for arming them with the facts. For every person signing up to the campaign, five or ten more will hear about it. I am no longer afraid of being awkward.”
For years, Rosén had kept quiet about her personal choice not to fly. That changed when her second child was born last year. Like many concerned parents and grandparents worldwide, she felt the urge to speak up on behalf of the next generation. Social scientists and ecologists from North Carolina State University recently confirmed what Rosén innately knew: children are a powerful force when it comes to changing their parents’ views on climate change. “I realised that people want to do good for their children. Most people are open to change, even to radical change, if they see it is needed.”