I’ll hold my hands up: before 2020, I was a damn hypocrite. The year before – that glorious time I shall always think of as BC (Before Covid) – was typified by a steadily growing momentum when it came to the climate emergency. Extinction Rebellion protests were swelling with support; Greta Thunberg had become a household name after her school strikes went global. And, squarely in my “patch” of journalism, a burgeoning movement dubbed flygskam was taking off – or literally not, as the case may be – in Sweden.
Translating to “flight shame”, this idea, promoted by prominent Swedes including Greta’s mother, the opera singer Malena Ernman, centred on the fact that flying was not something to aspire to but to feel guilty about. Campaigners said that, at this stage in the climate crisis, the carbon emissions from flights – which amounted to 860 million metric tonnes a year and equated to around 2 per cent of all emissions worldwide – could no longer be ignored. And these pioneers had completely quit flying as a result.
That same year, I was increasingly heartened by what seemed to be a turning point in the global conversation. People outside the usual bubble of scientists and activists – including powerful politicians and global brand managers – were finally talking about sustainability seriously. The problem could no longer be swept under the carpet; it had to be faced head-on. “Thank God!”, I remember thinking, as marches, sit-ins and protests made headlines on a weekly basis.
And yet I managed to still look the other way when it came to my own actions. It can be easy to do this when you’re a journalist – to think the rules don’t apply to you. It’s not an excuse, but I think it stems from acting as the “observer”, taking your place on the edge of things, remaining detached and, ideally, objective as you report on the world around you. But there’s a point at which our role as members of society – and citizens on an ever-heating planet – must take precedence. There’s a moment when each of us needs a wake-up call.
Mine came in the form of this feature about our very own contingent of flygskam in Britain. I kept reading about people who’d given up flying in Europe; a little research quickly revealed we had our own movement, Flight Free UK, which encouraged travellers to pledge not to fly for one year. It was a novel idea, and so I did what any journalist worth their salt would do – I mined it for copy, interviewing the campaign’s director, Anna Hughes, and several of the pledgees.
Everyone had their own reasons for taking the pledge, but there was a unifying quality to these interviews: passion, and perhaps an underlying sense of urgency. There was no judgmental lecturing; no taking me to task for my own position as not only an extremely frequent flyer but a person who promoted air travel on a daily basis as part of her job. There was only a desire to communicate the need to reduce the number of planes that were in the sky at any given moment, and to do so immediately.
Something about talking to those people made me connect the dots between my own life and the bigger picture. I sat down and counted how many flights I’d taken so far that year: 24 in less than six months. The equivalent of nearly one a week. By the end of 2019, my carbon footprint for flights taken alone would be up to a whopping 9.3 tonnes of CO2 – more than double the world average carbon footprint of 4.35 tonnes (to be clear, this is the average for all emissions an individual would contribute in an entire year, for every activity they do – not just flying).
I felt sick looking at that number. I finally felt skam about all those flyg. And so it was that a new chapter in my life as a travel editor began, metaphorically and literally. I decided I too would take the flight-free pledge in 2020, and I decided I would write a book about it, called Zero Altitude. I wanted to find out more – firstly on the practical side, experiencing first-hand all that slow travel had to offer, hopping aboard trains, buses, boats and bikes and seeing as much of the world as I could in between lockdowns and strict travel rules.
But I wanted to dig into the science too, to figure out whether there was a way we could keep flying in a way that was sustainable – be it through aviation technology or carbon removal schemes and offsetting. The short answer: not yet. In the short term, we need to fly less. As it stands, the numbers don’t add up; aviation growth and achieving net zero by 2050 are not compatible. We need to be operating fewer flights every year to stand a chance of hitting the climate targets set out in the Paris Agreement (for the longer answer: well, you’ll just have to buy the book).
My research and interviews with climate scientists, experts, campaigners and activists were compelling enough, in fact, to convince me to take the pledge in 2021 and again this year. But, truly, the main thing I’ve learned after two-and-a-half years of staying voluntarily grounded is this: rather than being an exercise in spartan self-denial, kicking the flying habit is an overwhelmingly positive experience for the traveller. Sure, it can be challenging and frustrating (and – yes – bloody expensive). Yet, for all that, it’s so much more than a sacrifice: it’s an opportunity. One that offers the chance to stop, stare, breathe in and view the world anew.
Forgive me a moment of toe-curling earnestness: “it’s about the journey, not the destination” may be the biggest cliché in the book, but sometimes clichés are clichés because, well, they’re true.
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