I used to be a huge fan of flying – and I certainly did my fair share. However, a sober assessment of the climate damage caused by flying in 2006 led me to give it up entirely, and seek out other options. I thought at the time that this would be a difficult aspect of my quest for a two tonne lifestyle. In retrospect, it simply opened the door to more diverse travel adventures than I ever anticipated.
What’s the problem?
Sadly, flying is the quickest and (sometimes) cheapest way of putting huge amounts of greenhouse gas into the atmosphere. Even a short flight can burn up enough fuel to produce over two tonnes of greenhouse gas in a couple of hours, never mind a year. Due to planes burning most of their fuel at high altitude, it also means that the greenhouse gas and water vapour produced is dumped directly into the upper atmosphere. As a result, the climate damage is amplified considerably, compared to burning the same amount of fuel at ground level.
On the cost front, Flights are often subsidised by local or national governments, and there is no fuel duty on aviation fuel as there is on land transport, which all goes to make flying unrealistically cheap in relation to the damage it causes. However, as with so many things, cheap doesn’t mean free – and reducing your flights will save you cash. The headline rate of the flight may be appealing, but when you add in transfers to/from the airport, departure taxes, baggage charges, a few gin and tonics to get over the awfulness of the flight, plus that bottle of ‘duty free’ perfume that actually costs more than in a normal shop, then you may find that you’ve spent three times the advertised headline fare. If you cut back your flying, and pick some good UK holiday options instead, or drive to Europe, you can save money on all but the cheapest holidays – and the experience will often be better too.
I’ll add some more specific ideas for no fly holidays in the UK and abroad over the coming months, and expanding on the ones here, but here’s my starting thoughts on the main alternatives to flying:
Europe by car
You might not think of going by car as a particularly environmentally friendly (or cheap) option, but if you can get a carful together, then it’s a real improvement over flying. Four people driving one thousand miles each way in an average car will produce around 517 kg of greenhouse gas (125kg per person). Flying the same distance for four people would cause around 2,000 kg (500kg per person). So driving in this case is around a quarter of the greenhouse gas that flying causes.
Of course, that is a long way to drive, and you might not fancy it. If we drive that far we always try and get two or three weeks of holiday in (and we always travel with a lot of camping and surfing gear too, which you’d never fit on a plane).
Cost wise, the tunnel and fuel costs us around £270 each way (£70 for the eurotunnel and £200 in fuel and wear and tear) at the height of the summer season. So the car is also probably going to be cheaper for a family of four, unless you luck out on some cheap high season fares or pick the destination based on price rather than wanting to go there. (A quick search for cheap fares in August to south of France were looking at around £1000 for a family of four in August).
We’ve done the drive option a number of times to the south of France, with a couple of good stop offs at campsites along the way. We love it!
Europe by Train
This is another option that I have done a number of times and every time it’s been exciting and, frankly, luxurious. Cheap it was not, mind, as the last two or three times I went first class on the Eurostar and (now sadly defunct) TrenHotel. The food on the Eurostar was fantastic, and on one memorable occasion the excellent French waiters were extremely generous with the champagne. Watching the countryside slip by whilst reading a good book or having a glass of wine knocked the spots of driving for sure. It felt like proper travelling, and the advantage of overnight train travel can often be that you wake up in the middle of your destination city in time for breakfast, instead of being dumped at an airport 15 miles out of town at midnight.
If you are up for the adventure of Europe by train, I would heartily recommend having a read of The Man in Seat 61. It’s author, Mark Smith, is a fanatic of rail travel, and can be a huge help in guiding you through the sometimes tricky ticketing arrangements.
Needless to say, going by train is many times less polluting than flying – 90% less or more. This analysis shows the improvement that train travel offers quite clearly, even though it massively underestimates the impact of flying…..
Europe by Bus
I haven’t done this one in a while, although I did once go from London to Lisbon in a bum-numbing, mind-jangling 36 hours as a youth. The memory is still with me, and I’m not that keen to repeat such a long journey, if I’m honest. But coaches are probably better these days, and there are certainly some great prices to be had. I am thinking about a walking holiday in the Alps, Pyrenees or Picos de Europa one of these days, and as we’d only be taking as much gear as we could carry, the coach would be a great option.
Holiday in the UK
Since I’ve been on the path to a two tonne lifestyle, I’ve had a lot more holidays in the UK, of course. But I’ve always loved dear old Blighty as a destination, and parts of it are still some of my favourite places in the world. We get away in the UK three or four times a year, either in a holiday cottage, or camping, depending on the time of year. I’ll add some favourite must-see UK destinations over the coming months, and if you want to share your favourite spots with me, then feel free!
What about offsetting your flights?
If you have to fly, then it is possible to pay an amount to various worthy causes in order to offset the significant damage of your flight. This sounds like a great idea and a passport to guilt-free flying. However, on closer inspection, the idea has proved to be quite contentious. The offset amounts sometimes charged are generally so paltry that if greenhouse gases were all so cheap to neutralise, the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer could pretty much solve climate change with the loose change in his next budget. Of course this is not realistic.
One of the best offsetting companies, Atmosfair.de, gives a price of 50Euros for 2000kg of flights. This sort of pricing might give us a quick and cheap way not to feel a bit guilty about the damage we are causing, but it in no way reflects the true cost of climate change. There are also a lot of questions around how you measure whether the carbon you’ve actually paid to be scrubbed from the atmosphere has gone (tricky), and whether it would have happened anyway (even trickier!).
So the offsetting argument is looking somewhat unrealistic. This artificially set price of repair is insignificant against the price of doing the damage; in other words, if it costs 2 pence to ‘remove’ a kilo of carbon dioxide that cost £1 of fuel to put there, why would we ever stop doing the damage? We will never see a reduction or change in behaviour if we go down this route.
It is also worth noting that I put ‘remove’ in parenthesis. Of course, most offsetting does not remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere at all. It merely prevents a further amount of carbon dioxide being produced to match the amount you put there with your flight! In other words, it doesn’t make any reductions, and it is crystal clear that we must make huge and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas.
The bottom line
Ultimately, if you use offsets to carry on exactly like before, then they are really just papering over the cracks. If you use them occasionally for a big occasional trip, and use a reputable company ( like atmosfair) , then they are better than not offsetting if you are going to go anyway. But ultimately, we have to accept that we can’t win the climate battle by offsetting emissions. It’s low price relative to the damage done by flying doesn’t offer sufficient incentive to stop doing that damage. We have to wake up and recognise that if we are to beat climate change, then some things will have to change.