I’m a travel journalist and I’ve given up flying. It might be the best thing I’ve done – both for me and for the planet.
If I had known this would be my last flight, I would have flown somewhere further away than Mallorca.
Antarctica or Papua New Guinea, perhaps: unique destinations that require serious effort to reach. I might have taken a private plane to French Polynesia, sipping champagne the whole way, then sliding down the inflatable evacuation slide as a last hurrah.
But the Balearics? It was my sixth visit. Like the other 13.6 million tourists who make their way to Spain’s string of sunny seductresses each year, I love the place. Quiet coves. These golden squares. Cold beers in the open oven heat of a balmy Mediterranean evening. All this at just £4.99 flying.
But in 2018, when I took this flight, I had yet to see The Graph, a line chart plotting average global temperatures over the past 11,000 years. It’s alarming: for millennia, the Earth’s temperature has fluctuated subtly like a mountain range. From a distance, one has the impression of contemplating the Alps: 0.1°C rise here, 0.2°C drop, steep ridges and subtle summits. And then the industrial age begins. Suddenly, the line explodes north like a rocket, with temperatures rising about 0.7°C in a century. I hadn’t yet delved into the deep research on climate change, as I strolled along Port de Pollença at dusk or considered its urgency while jumping off cliffs at Sa Calobra.
The magnitude of the problem
Once you’ve even glanced at the data, it’s hard to look away. As far as carbon emissions are concerned, the aeronautical industry represents 2% of total emissions in the world and 12% of smoke emitted by transport. So while its emissions aren’t as bad as, say, cruise ships (in 2019, Carnival ships produced more pollution than all European cars combined), planes are still responsible for an all- powerful.
A major problem is that this number is expected to increase. Before the pandemic, the number of passengers was increasing in every country on the planet. World Bank data showed that those in the United States took nearly a billion flights in 2019. And those who take flights tend to be frequent travelers. In the UK, 15% of people took 70% of flights, a trend repeated in other countries.
The result? The Global North is responsible for 92% of the world’s excess carbon emissions. However, it is in the countries of the South that the impact of climate change is most felt. Seen through this prism, flying can be fast, convenient and, for large parts of the planet, relatively affordable. But for a vacation, it’s also pretty non-essential.
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It wasn’t a difficult decision to stop flying, but it wasn’t practical. As a travel writer, I often need to travel to different countries quickly and easily. I have traveled to six continents and over 45 countries, taking over 100 flights. The plane is listed in the job description: there were long weekends in China; 45-minute domestic flights across India; a short jump from Brazil to Bolivia.
I had taken other steps in my daily life, from carrying a reusable water bottle to doing all my gardening by hand, and not flying seemed like another quick win in terms of reduction in my personal carbon emissions. It has now been almost four years since I was punished. In the meantime, people much smarter than me (NASA, the UK Department for Transport, Harvard, the UN, 99% of all climate scientists) have recalculated the numbers and – as the IPCC report concluded – This is the last call to save humanity.
It is important to note that the absence of a flight did not prevent me from traveling. If we don’t go out and see the world, we won’t be aware of what we are going to lose. We need to slow down the way we travel, to allow us to experience nature, to marvel, to engage with strangers. It’s what makes us human. This helps us foster understanding. And everything is available without flying.
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A slower, more sustainable future
Luckily, I’m not the only one who sees the potential for flightless travel. Look, for example, at companies like Slow Ways, an online community linking every town and city in Britain via a network of footpaths. By bringing together unused trails and little-known back roads, it’s now even easier to get around the carbon-free country.
We even see the first flightless travel agencies appear, such as Byway Travel, which offers slow travel trips to Sicily and the Côte d’Azur. In Europe, meanwhile, plans are being drawn up to expand the night train network across the continent.
It’s an exciting time to travel. A new company is about to operate a 70-day bus service between London and Delhi. Now that’s an adventure. Just like Greta Thunberg’s crossing of the Atlantic Ocean by yacht in 2019.
It’s convenience that kills us. We forget that humans are only a tiny part of this very vast planet and we need to learn how to move better through what sustains us.
So what does this mean for other travellers? That we should line up at the gates to publicly humiliate flyers? That we should quit our jobs to make slow, steady three-month journeys across continents on foot? This last exercise sounds nice, but it won’t work for everyone. The tourism industry is a juggernaut. It employs one in 10 people.
Instead, we need to see flightless travel not as dogma but as a whole new frontier. Flying less is definitely a good place to start. Staying longer in destinations is an improvement. Getting around by public transport or with your own steamer is ideal.
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But the fact is this: the planet must end the use of fossil fuels – and fast. Traveling without flying is one way to do this. It puts our money where our mouth is, which always changes behavior, and it gives me hope that we can preserve some of the most valuable sites in the world for future generations.
Some aviation experts believe that improving technology could be the answer – and they may be right. Many brains are already working on creating carbon-free commercial flights at companies like Airbus and Rolls Royce. But the new planes aren’t ready yet, and we simply can’t replace the roughly 40 million flights we currently operate each year in the near future.
So, for now, maybe the best way forward is to remember the forgotten ways? Travel closer to home. Cycling, walking, sailing. This is how I will move around the world. I take vacations that put me in tune with the planet and allow me to see the world in real time. When I travel on a human level and at a human pace, it helps me see the world in focus.
This summer I drove through St David’s Head in Pembrokeshire, where Wales is short on land. It was damp and rainy, a room full of clichéd British summers, but it was also beautiful.
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From above, I could see a patchwork of farmers’ fields, different crops in green, yellow and red. Then there was the purple swell of St George’s Channel, the body of water that separates the UK and Ireland. He was coughing and sputtering against the cliffs below. It had all the drama and natural majesty I needed to remind myself of my place on this planet – and it was only a short train ride away.
Still, I plan to return to Mallorca soon, taking a train from London to Paris and Barcelona. It is then an overnight ferry to Mallorca. It will take about 36 hours in total, plenty of time to rest and recharge. It may not be Antarctica or Papua New Guinea, but I would like to tell you about it someday.