Flight Free UK is passionate about low carbon travel. Flying less (and using the train instead) is one of the best ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Could you pledge to be flight free in 2020?
Anna Hughes is Director of Flight Free UK.
The campaign was founded by me, Anna Hughes, back at the end of 2018. I decided around ten years previous to that that I didn’t want to fly any more because of its impact upon the environment. But the IPCC report that came out in November 2018 showed me that just taking action in my own life was not good enough. I wanted to encourage others to take action in theirs.
The campaign is modelled on the Swedish campaign of the same name, which persuaded 14,500 Swedes not to fly in 2019, and led to a 9% drop in domestic flights in Sweden that year. It asks people to pledge not to fly for a year as a kick-start to behaviour change: it's about taking some time off, to break the habit, experience the alternatives, and join a social movement that says ‘we are happy not to fly.’
The campaign exists for so many reasons, but the big one is the emissions. A domestic flight from London to Edinburgh (return) generates 275.87kg carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per passenger, as opposed to just 43.76kg CO2e by train. That’s six times higher by plane. As you travel further afield, the difference is more marked: a train to Barcelona (return) is 34kg CO2e, as opposed to 324kg by plane – nearly ten times less polluting. A transatlantic flight will add around 2 tonnes of CO2 to your carbon footprint, as opposed to just 50kg by cargo ship (though not everyone has time or resources to cross the ocean on a cargo ship – a clear difficulty with our desire to travel long-haul!)
These figures are very hard to square against our need to reduce emissions to around 2.3 tonnes per person per year, globally, by 2035, in line with that IPCC report.
The trouble is, most people don't know how carbon heavy flying is. And that’s where Flight Free UK comes in. We aim to inform people of the climate impact of aviation, and inspire them to travel by other means.
The travel part is important, because coming a close second to the environmental benefit is the benefit to the passenger. You'd be hard-pushed to find someone who doesn't agree that travelling by train is a far more civilised experience than a flight. It’s calm, relaxing, and with lots of legroom. You can work if you wish, or read, or watch a film, or sleep, or gaze out of the window. You can get up any time and go to the toilet or visit the buffet car. There’s no hassle with luggage allowances, or lengthy check-in times.
Travelling overland is a much more authentic mode of travel, because you see so much more and experience so much more. You get a fantastic sense of geography, and interchanges give you a chance to explore a new city and interact with new people.
We see three main barriers to people choosing to travel by train. One is cost. Flights have had an unfair advantage in the price stakes since the birth of the industry, when it was agreed that aviation fuel would not be taxed in order to give this fledgling industry a leg up. But now the industry is extremely well established, and the agreement is still in place. For which government wants to make air travel more expensive? But this means that the playing field is not level, making rail comparatively very pricey, even though environmentally the costs of flying are so much greater. We work with others in campaigning for fair and affordable rail travel, and a fair taxation system for all transport, including on kerosene.
Another barrier is that people simply don’t know that other options exist. Cheap, available air travel has become such a part of our every day lives that it doesn’t cross our minds that other options are possible. “I literally didn't know you could take the train to Germany,” someone wrote on our Facebook page. We took great pleasure in telling her that, yes, you can – and it’s a wonderful way to travel.
And the concept of ‘time’. Flights are quick, so many people assume they don’t have time to travel by other means. But we forget that the advertised flight time isn’t the journey time. For short haul flights you can at least double that when you account for check-in, baggage claim and transfers. And when we consider how much more usefully we can spend our time on a train as opposed to standing in a queue waiting to board a flight, our concept of time shifts.
Of course, we don't need to travel abroad at all! As someone who has both cycled and sailed around the entire coastline of Great Britain, and travelled many thousands of miles within its borders, I am constantly awed by the wonders that sit right under our noses.
There are so many solutions to the environmental challenges we face, many of which involve government or industry intervention. But we should not forget that we have a lot of influence as consumers, too. And that is the political aspect to our campaign. If we choose not to fly, and if lots of other people make the same choice, we send a clear signal to government and industry that we are ready for change. Transport works on supply and demand – across Europe, sleeper trains are being introduced in response to the growing trend away from air travel, and in Sweden, that 9% drop in domestic flights led to many domestic routes being cancelled.
As awareness of the climate crisis and our role in stopping it grows, more and more people are choosing not to fly. Could you join them?
Flight Free UK
Anna Hughes writes at annacycles.co.uk.