Though the scientific and moral case against flying is robust, the reaction to making it has made me lose faith in the power of individual action. I think the only solution is a carbon price: see why in my new introduction.

Holidays are the bulk of UK air travel, and air travel is the most polluting thing an individual can do. There are circumstances under which flying is morally allowable—we’re not going to stop doctors and aid workers flying to countries beleaguered by natural disaster—but it doesn’t seem right to contribute to deaths in the developing world simply for the sake of personal pleasure. Given that they’re non-essential, given quite how much difference a single person can make by not taking one flight, and given the phenomenal and frightening government-backed pace of growth of the UK airline industry…it’s definitely worth encouraging people to stop flying before it’s too late.

In depth

Why are you singling out plane flight? Aviation doesn’t contribute much to UK carbon emissions. Why don’t we all drive less or get a wind turbine or something, wouldn’t that dwarf the effect of even a total ban on air travel?

The aviation industry contributes around 5.5% to UK carbon emissions1, and around 4% globally2.

However, these figures do not take into account the other waste gases emitted by aircraft which, particularly at the altitude they are emitted at, have a global warming effect far in excess of just the CO2. The combined effect of water (which freezes to give the familiar ‘contrails’ which aircraft trace out across the sky) and nitrogen oxides, or NOx, and the CO2 itself, is around 2.73 times greater than the carbon dioxide emissions alone. Thus, aircraft comprise more like 15% of the UK’s CO2e, or carbon dioxide equivalent, emissions.

The other way in which this picture is unrepresentative is that it does not include the rate of growth of the airline industry. Having risen by a factor of six since 1970, the number of air passengers is set to more than double between now and 2020, according to predictions made by the government4. If domestic and industrial energy use is reduced, as it will have to be, the skyrocketing aircraft industry’s contribution will be a massive, unsustainable chunk of our national carbon budget.

Indeed, the government’s plans on flight and their plans on the environment appear to be in direct contradiction to one-another: given government-assisted projected growth in aviation and the plan to reduce emissions by 60% by 2050, it could be the case that by then, air travel alone uses up over twice our allowed carbon budget for all industrial and domestic activity5, meaning that our every attempt at preventing climate change would be entirely useless. Luckily for ministers wanting to look good on both expansion of airports and green matters, the government exclude international aviation and shipping from their targets.

The other issue is how big an impact you can personally make now by not flying. We need to convert most of our power stations to some combination of nuclear and renewables, combined with energy savings by industry and consumers. Electricity generation is responsible for a larger chunk of carbon dioxide than aviation, so it would, at first glance, seem like a more obvious target for an environmentalist.

The difference is that to radically change our power infrastructure is going to take concerted effort from the government and users, and the process will take years. So, whilst we’re waiting for the overhaul in UK power, why not simply reduce your flights?

It is vital that we cut back across the board, but, because cutting back on air travel has such singular power over greenhouse gas emissions, it is also vital that we target it specifically.

“I have an immensely tedious job. I get four weeks off a year. My holiday to Ibiza is the one escape I get.”

Holidays do reduce stress and, if you’re being a cold utilitarian, you could perhaps argue that this is worth the death of a few fractions of a percent of an African child. But do you really need a plane in order to have fun?

Environmentalists do not propose banning holidays; there are plenty of far less polluting forms of transport available. Rail links in Europe mean that the entire continent is fairly accessible without needing to resort to air travel. You can drive pretty much anywhere within the UK without fear of greenie retribution simply because, though the fuel consumption per passenger per mile is similar to that of a plane, you’re going so much less far and there’s hopefully more than one of you in the car.

It probably won’t even come down to a total ban on plane flight: even if we have to reduce our emissions by 90%, if we can make cut-backs uniformly across the board (which isn’t a perfect approximation by any means, but it will give us an idea), 10% of the planes which fly today will be flying under a strict green regime. This does mean that you’ll have to fly ten times less often than you do now, on average, but if we were to allocate some kind of quota for plane flight, it will be the frivolous frequent fliers whose plane use is curtailed the most from current levels. Given that at present the poor make the least use of air travel anyway1, a new rationed system could even turn out to be fairer than the status quo.

The other reason to target holidays is that there are simply so many leisure flights made by UK passengers. Not only does half of the population now fly at least once a year4, but there are five overseas holiday flights to every business flight made overseas by UK residents1.

Holidays might be bad, but surely it can’t always be immoral to fly?

Holidays are an especially frivolous use of our carbon quota. It really is entirely optional whether or not you go, and we have survived for decades without the need to see the World in order to relax. So are there circumstances under which flying could be permitted?

Business trips are arguably of more value than simple vacationing; meetings cement relationships between companies and allow contracts to be drawn up facilitating billions of pounds worth of multinational trade.

Equally arguably, however, they are as replaceable. The technology which enables this is as recent as the meteoric rise in budget airlines which makes it a necessity; the Internet allows documents to be shared and collaborated on internationally, money can be transferred with electronic signatures far more secure than the old-fashioned hand-written ones and webcams and conference calls allow virtual meetings to be set up with almost no carbon emissions at all. Where you might be able to make a case that a meeting and the ensuing economic benefits could outweigh the climatic cost of flying there where the alternative was no meeting at all, can you argue that a face-to-face meeting would be better than a video conference to the extent of justifying the death of human beings?

Other reasons to transport people from place to place are more obscure, and less relevant because they’re so much less common. They’re a much smaller fraction of our emissions, and irrelevant to making the moral case against holidays to anyone reading this.

There are some instances in which air travel probably is, and will continue to be, justified. Journalists jetting about are performing a civic duty of reporting news to the rest of us and many people would argue that such free flow of information is worth a small cost in number of flights available to the rest of us. I’d even argue that rock stars should be allowed to fly; if they can give 70,000 screaming fans a good time for an evening, that probably justifies a bit of a carbon outlay to get them here.

And there are obviously cases when flying is justifiable, plain and simple. For example, to fly trained doctors and medical supplies to an area struck by a natural disaster will inevitably save more people than the flight itself could be deemed to kill. Where exactly the cut-off lies in number of lives to be saved or improved before a plane could be chartered with no worry whatsoever is open to debate, but it’s clearly so far from annual holidays abroad as to be largely irrelevant.


  1. This both carefully reasoned and passionate essay deserves the widest possible circulation, far beyond just those living in the UK. If anything, people in my affluent country, Canada, probably do more frivolous flying than all of the UK, using excuses like “I need to escape the cold winters by flying south”. And, it is not just African kids, the equation can expand to the future of one’s own children and grandchildren. Indulging in a frivolous flight now means an earlier death in the future for those you say you love.
    Personally, I figured this out after a series of plane trips in 1992, and haven’t taken a flight since.

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