Update in a Time of Coronavirus (Part 2)

Greenpeace activists occupy a runway at Schiphol Airport (Amsterdam) to protest coronavirus aid to polluting aviation sector, 14 May 2020.

To see Part 1 of the FlyingLess “Update in a Time of Coronavirus,” go here.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a significant downturn in global CO2 emissions. According to a study published earlier this month in Nature Climate Change, emissions in April 2020 were 17 percent less than they were in April 2019. At their peak, the decline averaged 26 percent in individual countries.

While the decrease shows what is possible, more importantly it illuminates the enormity of the challenges presented by climate change. As Corinne Le Quéré, a professor of climate change at East Anglia University and the study’s lead author, said in regard to the April numbers, “This is a really big fall, but at the same time, 83% of global emissions are left, which shows how difficult it is to reduce emissions with changes in behavior.” Similarly, Dave Reay, a professor of carbon management at Edinburgh University, characterized the findings as “sobering” in light of the small impact of what is a temporary decline will have on the climate system. “All those billions of lockdown sacrifices and privations have made just a small and likely transient dent in global greenhouse gas emissions.”

Rebuilding in the aftermath of the coronavirus and its economic disruption thus requires very different policy choices than those that have become standard fare. As Paul Morozzo, a senior climate campaigner at Greenpeace UK, told The Guardian, “We know how to do it. We have to rebuild our cities around walking, cycling and public transport. We’ve got to create hundreds of thousands of jobs upscaling renewable energy and insulating people’s homes. Let’s learn from this tragedy, build back better and not make the mistake of ignoring the next crisis [of climate breakdown] heading our way.”

Also central to the effort to “learn from this tragedy” and to “build back better” is scaling back on flying—and radically so.

An analysis of air traffic in the last week of March found a drop of over 50 percent in comparison to a typical March week in 2019, with the decrease particularly pronounced in international flights. By mid-April, eight of ten flights were cancelled worldwide, according to one report.  In the United States, the Transportation Security Administration saw a 96 percent decrease in passenger volume. However, there was only a 50 percent drop in the number of flights with many airlines opting to fly nearly empty planes—a reflection of the act that it can be less expensive for an airline to fly a plane that to pay to park it somewhere.

Daniel Rutherford, aviation director at the International Council on Clean Transportation called the mismatch a “huge environmental waste.” What Rutherford characterizes as “the million-dollar question” is, once the pandemic passes, “whether we will curb flying to protect the climate, as we are now doing to protect public health.”

For myriad reasons, the near- and long-term future of aviation is unclear. What is certain is that, from the industry’s perspective, there are many worrisome signs—a small uptick in flying in the last weeks notwithstanding.

In China, for instance, the number of domestic flights began to rise in mid-February, but reached a plateau in early March of a little over 40 percent of pre-pandemic levels. In the United States, in response to a polling question of “If restrictions were lifted on the advice of public health officials to do the following, how likely would you be to fly on an airplane?” only 28 percent answered “definitely” or “probably.” And in early May, Warren Buffett, one of the world’s richest people and most important investors, sold his firm’s entire holdings in the four biggest U.S. airlines, explaining that the “world has changed” as a result of COVID-19.

Meanwhole, Germany’s state airline, Lufthansa, has reported that it will ground 300 of its 763 planes over the next year; by 2023, when the airline foresees that the coronavirus-related impacts on aviation will have passed, Lufthansa expects its fleet to be smaller by 100 planes. This is probably related, in part, to a decline in business travel predicted by some experts as companies experience the possibilities of videoconferencing and an economic downturn forces some to forego spending on flights.

Finally, in the days in which FlyingLess was putting together this update, Boeing, the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial aircraft, announced that it would layoff 10 percent of its workforce—over 12,000 employees—in a first round of cuts related to the coronavirus-related downturn. And American Airlines and Delta Airlines announced that they were offering buyouts to employees given their expectation that it will take years for the industry to reach its pre-coronavirus levels.

Regardless of what transpires in light of such developments, the necessity of working to ensure a massive, long-term decrease in flying is as urgent as ever. A new article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is one manifestation as to why.

Published by a team of five scientists, the study finds that, if present trends in regard to greenhouse gas emissions continue, one third of the world’s population—about 3.5 billion people—could be residing in regions with temperatures inhospitable to human life in the next 50 years. The study foresees a mean annual temperature of 29 degrees celsius (84 F) in the affected regions, a “terrifying“ outcome according to Nathan Sayre, a geographer at the University of California, Berkeley, “Those places are more or less uninhabitable, let alone arable.”

In the face of such findings, flying markedly less is not a question for academia to debate, but a goal for the academy to achieve.

Of course, as writer George Monbiot points out, flying and, more broadly, traveling less are necessary in the face of the climate crisis, but not sufficient. Broader structural change is needed as well. So, to quote Monbiot, “let’s have what many people were calling for long before this disaster hit: a green new deal. But please let’s stop describing it as a stimulus package. We have stimulated consumption too much over the past century, which is why we face environmental disaster. Let us call it a survival package, whose purpose is to provide incomes, distribute wealth and avoid catastrophe, without stoking perpetual economic growth. Bail out the people, not the corporations. Bail out the living world, not its destroyers. Let’s not waste our second chance.”

Recent academic articles, reports, and essays

To remedy the gap between what academics know about the climate impacts of their professional flying and what they do in response, James Higham (University of Otago) and Xavier Font (University of Surrey) contend that scholars must call into question ““our own long-standing and deeply entrenched travel behaviours.” Academics find it difficult to do so, they say, because of a tendency to “morally disengage from the significance of our impacts and exonerate ourselves with worthy causes.” As a result, “we absolve ourselves from personal responsibility.” However, because “participation in the high-carbon air travel regime is a social convention,” individual sacrifice will not suffice. Thus, coordination among policymakers is needed. In the end, the authors suggest four steps for realizing “a different way of doing our jobs”: 1) auditing of carbon footprints within the academy, particularly at the departmental level; 2) raising consciousness regarding necessity of regulating academia’s climate impacts and setting up standards for determining when flying is appropriate; 3) public sharing of the resulting policy changes; and 4) developing systems to facilitate low-co2-emitting ways for academics to do their jobs effectively and efficiently. (See James Higham & Xavier Font (2020) Decarbonising academia: confronting our climate hypocrisy, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 28:1, 1-9, DOI: 10.1080/09669582.2019.1695132)

Because Sweden has emerged as an epicenter of activity aimed at decreasing air travel, a quartet of researchers interviewed Swedish residents, largely those who have reduced their flying, to understand what brought about the shift in behavior. The team, led by Lisa Jacobson, finds that, while knowledge of climate change is essential, it must be coupled with an emotional internalization of such knowledge. However, given how “entangled in the knot of habits, norms and structures promoting air travel” many people are, large-scale change requires greater support from the political sphere (particularly the state). “This could be a combination of improving travel alternatives, e.g., better train infrastructure and economic and regulatory policy instruments promoting cleaner alternatives, as well as improved climate communication and education to change social norms.” What the authors call “moral entrepreneurs”—those who stop or reduce flying absent such political support—may play a significant role in bringing about the needed shift in norms and values. (See Lisa Jacobson, Jonas Ackerman, Matteo Giusti, and Avit K. Bhowmilk, “Tipping to Staying on the Ground: Internalized Knowledge of Climate Change Crucial for Transformed Air Travel Behavior,” Sustainability 2020, 12, 1994.)

A key tension at the heart of most universities in high-income countries is the effort to enhance sustainability—to reduce their ecological impact—and to increase internationalization (for reasons of prestige and financial income). Sanna Barrineau and Keri Facer of Uppsala University explore this tension “to identify inspirations and examples that might constitute gestures towards sustainable internationalisation.” The authors thus provide an overview of innovative efforts from various countries to deploy technology to “green” conference-going, to shift academic culture, and to “decolonize” curricula. Thereafter, the authors report on a workshop at their own institution focused on rethinking sustainability and internationalization so that they complement one another; the goal was to envision what an ideal Uppsala University would look like in 2030. Participants then engaged in an exercise of “backcasting” aimed at identifying concrete steps, which the report outlines, to achieve that vision. (See Sanna Barrineau and Keri Facer, “Sustainability & Internationalisation Agendas in the University: How can they support each other?” report for the Zennström Climate Change Leadership Initiative, November 2019, 10 pp.)

In April, a team of 17 researchers led by Alberto Sanz-Cobena (El Centro de Estudios e Investigación para la Gestión de Riesgos Agrarios y Medioambientales in Madrid) published an article titled “Research Meetings Must Be More Sustainable” in Nature Foods (Vol. 1, 187-189). Calling flying “the most contradictory choice that sustainability researchers make,” the authors point out that aviation has received the most scrutiny by scholars, which has facilitated the diversion of “attention away from other anthropogenic drivers of environmental degradation.” Of particular concern to the authors is the nitrogen “foodprint” of conferences. As such they call for the prioritization of plant-based meals. This is one of twelve points that make up the Cercedilla Manifesto, which aims to enhance the “sustainability dimensions’ of scientific meetings. The manifesto “starts with the definition of whether a physical, remote or hybrid meeting is most appropriate … and ends with an evaluation of the meeting’s environmental impact and lessons learned for the next Meeting.” To read and/or sign the manifesto, go here.

To defend the human rights of all people, Richard Parncutt (University of Graz) seeks to measure the relationship between fossil fuel consumption and future deaths attributable to the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. Given the socially uneven impacts of these emissions, the author characterizes emissions as ageist, racist, and sexist. To illuminate this, the author develops, via a thorough analysis that acknowledges statistical uncertainty, the “1,000 tonne rule”: the burning of roughly one thousand tons of carbon-based fuels (which creates about 3,700 tons of co2 emissions) leads to the death of one future human being. Among the concrete examples he offers is that involving four long flights by passenger aircraft, which together lead, on average, to the premature death of one person. For this reason, he states, “flying should be made more expensive (e.g. by carbon taxes) and reserved for emergencies and life-saving projects.” More broadly, the 1,000-ton rule illustrates the need to center human rights in discussions of climate change and the transition to a post-fossil-fuel world.  (See Richard Parncutt, “The Human Cost of Anthropogenic Global Warming: Semi-Quantitative Prediction and the 1,000-Tonne Rule,” Frontiers in Psychology, 2019, doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02323)

Three researchers at the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds have published a study which provides new insights into the inequities associated with income and energy consumption. Via a survey of the energy embodied in privatized goods and services consumed across income groups in 86 countries that centers intra- and international inequalities, the authors find that energy inequality exists in all consumption categories. The inequality is so pronounced that the bottom 50% or the world’s population consumes less than the top 5 percent. Transport, however, is among the most unequal. The top 10% of the world’s population consumes about 55% of mobility-related energy—187 times more than that consumed by the bottom 10%. This speaks to how, as people become wealthier, they spend more on transport—and energy-intensive goods more broadly (e.g. vacations abroad). As a result, the energy gap increases to a greater degree than the income gap. (See Yannick Oswald, Anne Owen, and Julia Steinberger, “Large inequality in international and intranational energy footprints between income groups and across consumption categories,” Nature Energy, Vol. 5, March 2020: 231-239.)

The impacts of air pollution, and from emissions associated with ground transportation in particular, on premature births and other adverse birth outcomes is well established. Newly published research fills a gap in the literature by focusing on the effects of aircraft emissions with a focus on nano- or ultrafine particles from jet engines. Through a study of the birth records of 174,186 mothers who gave birth between 2008 and 2016 residing within 15 kilometers of Los Angeles International Airport, a team of six researchers found the aircraft emissions play an “etiologic” or causal role in preterm births. (See Sam E. Wing, Timothy V. Larson, Neelakshi Hudda, Sarunporn Boonyarattaphan, Scott Fruin, and Beate Ritz, “Preterm Birth among Infants Exposed to in Utero Ultrafine Particles from Aircraft Emissions,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 128, No. 4, April 2020.)

With an intended audience of scientists and conservationists—”often among the most frequent of flyers”—a group of six researchers illustrate the co2 impact of flying on Arctic sea ice and polar bear habitat. Using the example of researchers flying from Copenhagen to Oslo for a polar bear meeting, the authors point out that each passenger is responsible for 1 m2 of Artic summer sea-ice melt resulting in several hundred square meters for all the attendees. With one metric ton of CO2 emissions melting 3 square meters of Arctic summer sea-ice, the authors estimate that the world’s flight passengers together melt 5470 km2 sea-ice each year—a landmass equivalent to Trinidad and Tobago or 1.35 million soccer fields. Such melting explains why the world’s polar bear population is severely threatened. The authors call for webinars and videoconferences to replace gatherings involving flying and ask Artic researchers to “think twice about conducting fieldwork.” (See Christian Sonne, Aage K.O. Alstrup, Rune Dietz, Yong Sik Ok, Tomasz Maciej Ciesielski, Bjørn Munro Jenssen, “Aviation, melting sea-ice and polar bears,” Environment International, Vol. 133, Part B, December 2019, 105279.)

In an opinion piece for the blog of The BMJ, one of the world’s oldest and most important medical journals, former editor Richard Smith confesses to his frequent flying (which has included crossing the Atlantic some 300 times and travelling to Madrid for lunch). He also announces that, because of the climate emergency, he has stopped flying—except when he goes from London to Mexico to see his son, daughter in law, and grandchildren. In the end, he writes, “Those organising—and those funding—every meeting should ask if the meeting has to take place face to face. My assertion is that the majority could be conducted electronically without anybody needing to fly anywhere. We have to change how we think about meetings just as we have to change how we think about everything. Disaster is close.” (See Richard Smith, “Most Meetings Can Happen Electronically, Saving Tonnes of Carbon,” thebmjopinion, December 31, 2019.)

New Initiatives

In March, the Environmental Association for Universities and Colleges (EAUC)—the self-described “sustainability champion for universities and colleges” in the United Kingdom—launched the “Travel Better Package.” One of the initiative’s key aims is to reduce air travel in higher education, “specifically amongst academics and staff.” Another is to encourage individuals to be “more knowledgeable about sustainable travel, actively choose sustainable travel options and encourage others to do the same.” Developed by Sonya Peres, the package includes three documents: a “travel better” pledge for institutions and individuals; a question and answer tool for addressing concerns that individuals may have about reducing flying; and a decision tree to help guide reflections on attendance of a conference, meeting and/or event to which one can travel only by flying.

Kevin Anderson: “Laggards or leaders: Academia and its responsibility in delivering on the Paris commitments.”

This is a recording of Dr. Anderson’s plenary lecture for the Climate Action Task Force of the American Association of Geographers‘ annual meeting on April 8 2020. Due to the coronavirus, the meeting was fully virtual (#VirtualAAG). Although the meeting was much smaller than recent (in-person) ones, it was still quite sizeable:  it had about 200 sessions, and more than 1,100 participants and attendees.

Kevin Anderson is Professor of Energy and Climate Change at the Universities of Manchester (United Kingdom) and Uppsala (Sweden). He is also a long-time analyst of aviation-related emissions and a champion of flying less.

A FlyingLess Update in a Time of Coronavirus (Part 1)

The FlyingLess movement, it would seem, has seen its wish fulfilled, and much more quickly than expected: the number of flights worldwide has dropped precipitously in recent weeks.

Tragically, it has taken a global pandemic, to whose spread airlines have been a been a key contributor, to bring about the decrease. As a result, the general economic decline, of which reduced flying is part, has unfolded in a highly disruptive manner that is especially harmful to the already vulnerable. (What’s more, as past experience with reductions associated with economic downturns illustrates, high levels of co2 emissions are likely to return once the threat of COVID-19 passes.)

As anthropologist Jason Hickel points out in relation to the coronavirus-related downturn in industrial activity, “the crucial thing to observe is that this is happening in an unplanned, chaotic way which is hurting people’s lives. . . . What we need,” he says, “is a planned approach to reducing unnecessary industrial activity that has no connection to human welfare and that disproportionately benefits already wealthy people as opposed to ordinary people. There are much more equitable, just and carefully planned ways to approach this kind of problem.” These words certainly apply to our work to achieve far-reaching reductions in flying.

In a time of coronavirus, we continue our efforts—not least because we must in order to minimize the ravages of climate breakdown. We also express our deep sympathies and solidarity with people around the world who have lost loved ones, and who are struggling with their own wellbeing and those around them in the context of the ongoing pandemic. Of course, our sympathies and solidarity are with those suffer from the harms induced by climate change and air pollution as well.

It appears that exposure to air pollution increases the likelihood that one can contract COVID-19. As such, a silver lining of the pandemic—at least a temporary one—is that air pollution levels have dropped dramatically. One sees this in China and South Korea, in cities across the United States, and throughout Europe.

In the case of China alone—for the months of January and February—a research group led by Marshall Burke at Stanford University estimates that the reduction in air pollution “likely has saved the lives of 4,000 kids under 5 and 73,000 adults over 70 in China. This, he states, is “roughly 20x the number of lives that have been directly lost to the virus.”

Lest anyone infer that the researchers are suggesting that COVID-19  is a net positive, Burke asserts: “It seems clearly incorrect and foolhardy to conclude that pandemics are good for health. … But the calculation is perhaps a useful reminder of the often-hidden health consequences of the status quo, ie, the substantial costs that our current way of doing things exacts on our health and livelihoods.”

In the weeks prior to coronavirus becoming a pandemic on a global scale, there were many manifestations of the growing fight against “our current way of doing things” on the flying front.

In early January, for example, actor Yael Stone announced, in the wake of the devastating wildfires in Australia, her country of birth, that she was giving up her permanent residency in the United States to return to her homeland. She explained that this would put a stop to her frequent flying between the two countries, a necessary step in the fight against climate change. “The carbon emissions alone from that flying – it’s unethical. It’s not right,” she stated in a video message.

Soon thereafter, Manchán Magan, a travel writer for The Irish Times, declared in what is one of Ireland’s leading newspapers, that he would no longer fly on holiday due to aviation’s destructive impact on the planet. Also in January, Alessia Armenise, the picture editor of the UK-based magazine Stylist, having flown 19 times the previous year, pronounced that she was immediately giving up flying and embracing slow travel. Travel (implicitly of the jet-setting variety), she wrote, is “a big part of the over-consumption problem that is leading the planet to its decline.”

These high-profile, personal commitments to reduce flying are a manifestation of a larger shift in attitude—in Europe and beyond. In early March, for example, the results of a poll conducted in September-October 2019, one involving more than 28 thousand respondents in all member states of the European Union, showed that 62 percent supported a ban on short-haul flights for reasons of climate change. Seventy-two percent voiced support for a carbon tax on flights. Survey data released two months earlier indicated that strong majorities of people in China (94%), the European Union (75%), and the United States (69%) were planning to fly less in 2020, to limit their CO2 emissions.

Residents of the village of Harmondsworth, half of which would have been destroyed had Heathrow’s expansion happened. They’ve fought against expansion for 20 years.

On the collective organizing front, there were major victories in the United Kingdom.

In early February, the North Somerset council blocked a plan to expand Bristol Airport (which actually lies outside of Bristol). The expansion would have allowed the airport to accommodate 12 million passengers annually. It would have also included the extension of the passenger terminus and plane taxiways, more than 3,000 additional parking spaces, much of it on greenbelt land, as well as far-reaching changes to roads around the airport. Among the arguments put forth by expansion opponents were those of public health—a study released in late 2019 revealed that air pollution results in the deaths of five people each week in Bristol—and the harm it would entail to birdlife and bat colonies.

A little more than two weeks later, a court in London ruled that a proposed third runway for Heathrow is illegal because it would undermine the country’s obligations under the Paris agreement to cut co2 emissions. The court decision was a huge victory in what has been a 20-year campaign to stop Heathrow’s expansion. While the British government has said that it will not contest the ruling, deep concerns about airport expansion in the United Kingdom more broadly persist. Still, the decision marks the first major ruling by a court anywhere in the world based on the Paris accord.  According to The Guardian, climate campaigners across Europe see the ruling as “a red line for climate campaigning and would have lasting implications that could kill off aviation expansion.”

France is one country where such expansion is a threat. Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport, outside of Paris, is slated for major growth. But there is significant opposition. In January, sixty-seven mayors and presidents of regional councils from the greater Paris area called upon President Emmanuel Macron, for reasons of public health and the climate, to abandon plans to enlarge the airport.

A study released in mid-December by the Leeds Climate Commission demonstrates just how threatening airport expansion can be. It is the first position paper to examine aviation’s contribution to a UK’s city’s co2 budget. The Commission reports that, were emissions associated with the flights of Leeds residents from any airport added to the emissions from fuel and electricity used within Leeds, there would be a 21 percent increase in the city’s overall emissions. And if all flights to and from Leeds Bradford Airport were attributed to Leeds (and passengers were to increase to 7 million annually as predicted by expansion plans), those emissions would equal, by 2026, all of the city’s emissions associated with fuel and electricity consumption.

Goings-on within academia and beyond

As previous posts on our website illustrate, endeavors to “green” academic practices, especially conference-going, among other forms of networking, long precede the coronavirus. However, the pandemic has necessitated and led to dramatic growth in these efforts.

The American Association of Geographers (AAG), like many professional organizations, has cancelled its in-person annual meeting due to COVID-19.  A scaled-down (but still sizeable) version of the meeting will take place online—April 6-10, as originally scheduled—with, as of this writing, over 170 sessions. The AAG Climate Action Task Force was already planning several virtual and hybrid sessions for the meeting (in Denver) as part of its efforts to transform the annual gathering of several thousand into a low-emissions undertaking. The Task Force’s plenary session will feature climate scientist Kevin Anderson of the University of Manchester. His talk, titled “Laggards or Leaders? Academia and its responsibility in delivering on the Paris commitments,” will take place on Wednesday, April 8, 11:10am-12:25pm (Mountain Daylight Time); 1:10pm-2:25pm (EDT); and 5:10pm-6:25pm (GMT). You can “attend” the plenary via this link.

The Society for Cultural Anthropology (SCA) and the Society for Visual Anthropology will host their second carbon-neutral biennial conference (May 7-9). The conference seeks to “to internationalize and democratize anthropological knowledge in an environmentally conscious, nearly-carbon-neutral format.“ That format, according to the SCA, “will be virtual and distributed: virtual in that it will be anchored by a dedicated conference website streaming prerecorded multimedia panels; and distributed in that presenters and viewers from across the globe will participate in the conference via in-person local ‘nodes.’” Registration will soon be available on the conference website.

“DeGrowth Vienna 2020—Strategies for Social-Ecological Transformation” will take place May 29-June 1. The focus of the conference will be “the strategies we need to achieve a socially and environmentally just future.” The conference will now take place fully online. Prior to the pandemic, organizers were already envisioning the international gathering as involving no flying. Insisting that a socially and environmentally just world has to “include a drastic reduction in aviation” and that “the Degrowth Community must set an example in this regard,” organizers explicitly discouraged people from flying to the conference: “We know that aviation is a part of the current imperial mode of living and production,” they stated. “While it also allows communities around the world to be connected, we do not believe that this end justifies the intense and irreversible environmental impacts of flying.”

A little more than a week later (June 10-12), the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI) will open its fourth international conference. Under the theme of “Sustainable Consumption & Social Justice in an Urbanizing World,” the now-fully-online conference has lower registration rates for students and low-income participants. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, SCORAI collaborated with the KTH Royal Institute of Technology to develop a “Nordic Hub” that would have been virtually linked to the main venue in Boston; the aim of this “pilot project” was to demonstrate “how to make a scientific conference digital, lowering the number of flights for participants (especially intercontinental), but keeping the social and networking aspects of a conference.”

The European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) will hold its biennial meeting in Lisbon, July 21-24. With the theme of “new anthropological horizons in and beyond Europe,” the conference will include, for the first time, “a stream of ‘Nearly Carbon Neutral (NCN)’ panels”—virtual panels in other words. The goal of this innovation is “to progressively reduce the EASA biennial carbon footprint, and to widen participation to include participation by a potentially global audience of scholars for whom standard EASA membership and registration fees are prohibitive.” As of this writing, the in-person component of the conference is still scheduled to proceed.

A one-day international symposium on “Reducing Academic Flying” took place at the University of Sheffield shortly before the outbreak, on November 13. With a combination of in-person and virtual presentations, the symposium had about 30 people from the United Kingdom in physical attendance, and 80 individuals, from more than a dozen countries, attending remotely. All the presentations are now available online.


As with our previous update, there is too much to cover and, as such, we have thus decided to break up this update into two parts—to prevent it from becoming overly long. We will post Part 2 soon. It will include “Recent academic articles, working papers, and essays.”