In the Wake of the Global Climate Strikes: A FlyingLess Update

A singing protest inside Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Sept. 2, 2019.

When we launched the FlyingLess initiative in October 2015, flying was a marginal issue in discussions surrounding global warming and co2 emissions. Four years later, it is remarkable how visible the issue has become—in academia and, more importantly, in the greater world. Greta Thunberg’s principled opposition to flying and her decision to sail from Europe to the United States across the Atlantic has certainly aided this shift, but many factors—not least the work of a whole host of organizations and individuals—underlie it.

The manifestations of the shift are multiple, and evident in recent weeks. They range from the individual to the collective.

On September 11, for example, Oliver Smith, the digital travel writer of The Telegraph, one of Britain’s leading daily newspapers, announced that he would limit himself to one roundtrip flight per year. He pledged to do so, he wrote, “until the aero boffins develop a zero-carbon alternative (and I don’t mean some dubious offsetting scheme devised to lessen the guilt of frequent travellers).” Less than a month later, Michael Kerr, a travel writer with the politically conservative daily, made a similar commitment, pledging that he would no longer fly for work purposes. Around the same time, The New York Times reported that Jérôme Bel, a renowned French choreographer, will no longer fly for professional purposes and renounced membership in what he calls the “artistic jet set.” As a result, Bel has had to change the way he conducts and organizes his work and travel. He has thus persuaded theaters to allow for train trips, and made plans to go by train, along with his four assistants, to Moscow and four cities in China in fall 2020.

On October 2, 36 young climate activists and five crew members set sail from Amsterdam on a seven-week voyage to Chile to attend the COP25 and lobby national governments to take the steps needed to radically cut flying-related emissions. Meanwhile the “flight shame” movement continues to expand and put a dent in the growth of commercial aviation. It is for such reasons that UBS predicted that rising concerns about the environmental impact of flying will reduce the sale of new jets from Boeing and Airbus in the coming years. Underlying the projected reduction are a doubling by Germany’s government of the taxes on short-distance flights as a way of bringing the country closer to its emissions-reduction target, as well as an “ecotax” on flights beginning in 2020 announced by France’s government.

In the United Kingdom especially, where more than two-thirds of those recently polled think that people should reduce the amount of flying they do, the issue seems to be receiving increased attention. In September, the BBC ran an extensive piece on the growing support for the anti-flying movement and an increasing embrace of slower forms of travel. It included quotes from Anna Hughes, head of Flight Free UK, and FlyingLess supporters Alice Larkin, a climate scientist at the University of Manchester, Roger Tyers, an environmental sociologist at Southampton University, and Steve Westlake, a behavioral psychologist at Cardiff University. Later the same month, the BBC ran a debate entitled “Should we stop flying” that featured geographer Paul Chatterton. (See Chatterton’s essay, “The Climate Emergency and the New Civic Role for the University” on TimesHigherEducation.com.)

A global survey released at the end of August by Ipsos, a research organization, found that one out of seven people are willing to use a form of transportation with a lower co2 footprint than aviation even if were costlier and less convenient. (In China, the figure was nearly two thirds of those surveyed.) If the alternative forms of transport are as convenient as, and no more expensive than flying, 29 percent would switch.

What makes these developments all the more necessary is that flight-related emissions not only continue to increase, but also have grown much faster than many expected. In September, the International Council on Clean Transportation reported that, based on its study, emissions from commercial air travel are increasing 1.5 times faster than predicted by the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization, which had foreseen a tripling of emissions, over 2018 levels, by 2050.

It is thus both surprising and heartening to see the president and CEO of KLM, the world’s oldest airline, publishing an open letter, one which acknowledges, even if mildly so, the detrimental impact flying has on the environment. The Dutch airline’s letter calls upon both passengers and the commercial air travel industry to work together to bring about “a sustainable future for aviation.” An accompanying video encourages would-be travelers to consider alternatives to air travel, asking “Do you always have to meet face-to-face?” and “Could you take the train instead?” (KLM has also said it will continue to promote air travel, one reason being that it “needs to make a profit to survive.”)

Exciting Initiatives in Academia and Beyond

The Centre for Energy and Climate Transformation at the University of Bergen in Norway organized a conference train from Oslo to Bergen, site of the conference Beyond Oil: Deep and Rapid Transformations. The seven-hour trip between the two cities included workshops and academic discussions that took place in a train car dedicated to the moving gathering. “Who said slow travel had to be boring?” the organizers asked rhetorically.

On November 13, 2019, the University of Sheffield will host a one-day international symposium on “Reducing Academic Flying.” The gathering will “bring together leading researchers into academic and business flight, as well as people with experience of initiatives that help to reduce flight dependence.” If you would like to attend or to participate remotely, send an email to academic-flying@sheffield.ac.uk.

In September, faculty associated with the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia launched an open letter to the university’s administration and governing body. In the name of “modelling best practices and encouraging other universities and workplaces to dramatically lower emissions,” the letter calls upon them to provide incentives and institutional support to lower aviation emissions among UBC faculty and administrators. Business-related flying is the source of an estimated 40% of the university’s total greenhouse gas emissions. The letter is associated with a larger effort called “Zero Emission University,” which also invites Canadian academics to sign a pledge “committing to restrict air travel and foster a low-carbon culture” in universities.

In Germany, a group of academics has come together under the name of “ClimateWednesday” to bring about climate-neutral universities by 2035. According to ClimateWednesday, there are efforts at numerous institutions in Germany to encourage academics to commit not to fly short distances (distances that can be traversed by non-flying means in less than 12 hours). As reported on its website, many hundreds of German academics have made the commitment thus far.

Recent academic articles and essays

An international team of five researchers published the results of a study of 29 international students at Sweden’s Lund University concerning the perceived importance of their flights over a six-year period. In light of the necessity of reducing the amount of flying, the term sought to ascertain the types of airborne trips that could be relatively easily reduced. Of the 587 flights taken by the students, 40 percent were for leisure purposes, and 23 percent were aimed at visiting friends or relations. The students rated 48 percent of their flights as lacking importance. For the authors, these findings suggest the need to incorporate the environmental costs of air travel into the price of tickets as a way of reducing “superfluous” air travel, that which travelers themselves deem as unnecessary. (See Stefan Gossling,, Paul Hanna, James Higham, Scott Cohen, and Debbie Hopkins, “Can we fly less? Evaluating the ‘necessity’ of air travel,” Journal of Air Transport Management, Vo. 81, published online September 26, 2019.)

Another five-person team—composed of individuals from the Departments of Geography at the Université de Montréal (UdeM) and its cross-town counterpart, McGill University—evaluated the study-/work-related mobility footprint (beyond daily commutes) of professors, students, postdoctoral fellows, and research staff. Focusing on the UdeM, the team surveyed 703 individuals about their travel habits. The team also gathered data from the university regarding the travel of sports teams and travel data related to study abroad programs and international students. The study found that most travel is to locations within Québec, involving short distances. In terms of mode of travel, 35 percent of trips were by plane. For students, the figure was 87.4 percent. Among professors who responded, the size of their work-related travel footprint alone averages 10.76 metric tons of CO2 per year. Academic air travel by itself is, the authors estimate, responsible for 30 percent of the university’s CO2 emissions, and 7 percent of its nitrogen output. (See Julien Arsenault, Julie Talbot, Lama Boustani, Rodolphe Gonzales, and Kevin Manaugh, “The environmental footprint of academic and student mobility in a large research-oriented university,” Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 14, 2019: 095001.)

One year after committing to give up flying—what she calls “one of the most unsettling things I’ve done as an academic” but about which, despite still feeling some conflict, “more convinced of the value of the exercise now than I did at first—anthropologist Hannah Knox offers a thoughtful reflection of her experience. Embracing a “slow academia” and alternative forms of travel, Knox has “found a new space for thinking about what it means to do anthropology and do academic work.” It is “a space in which she is exploring “with others new ways of reflexively critiquing and potentially transforming, the high-carbon version of knowing and acting that we have come to take for granted.” (See Hannah Knox, “A Year Without Flying,” July 2, 2019; posted at https://hannahknox.wordpress.com/2019/07/02/a-year-without-flying/)

In a similar spirit, geographer Sue Ruddick asks how, in a time of intensifying climate breakdown, “might we think alternative forms of connection in a way that doesn’t seem like the poor cousin to the big conference?” In an effort to “replace old seductions with new ones,” the brief article explores two “recipes” for low-CO2-emitting and “slow” forms of conferencing. (See “Slow Conferencing: A Recipe for Connection in Troubled Times,” ACME: An International Journal for Critical Geographies, Vol. 18, No. 3, 2019: 576-580.)

Finally, tourism, transportation, and energy scholars Scott Cohen and Joseph Kantenbacher assert in their conceptual article that a key reason that arguments for reducing air travel have failed to win over many frequent flyers is that they are narrowly framed around climate change. They thus advocate for a focus on the personal health benefits of flying less. Such gains, they contend, “are more numerous and likely more salient for frequent flyers than environmental benefits.” This points to the need for a “co-benefits” approach, one that conjoins the health and environmental benefits of reduced flying. In the end, the authors call for research to test empirically the effectiveness of such an approach. (See: “Flying Less: Personal Health and Environmental Co-benefits, Journal of Sustainable Tourism, 2019.)