Is it ever okay to fly to Scotland?

A friend wrote to me recently, asking the following question:

So I want to go and visit my friend in Aberdeen for a weekend.

I can take the sleeper, which I would much prefer, but which is far more expensive than flying, and (unless I go first class, at which point the cost becomes bonkers) involves sharing with a stranger and I’m way too private a person to want to do that in my own country. (Somehow it becomes OK once you cross the border.)

Or I can fly, which involves horrible airports (ugh) and commercial flying (boo) and the burning of significant quantities of fossil fuels (shame). But it’s far, far cheaper than the cheapest sleeper ticket. (That sounds slightly poetic.)

One online carbon offsetting website says that it would cost £3.10 to offset the carbon of the flights. Another says £1.30.

Now, I’d be willing to spend ten or twenty times that amount of money to make myself feel better about flying, be it carbon offsetting or contributing to the 10:10 campaign or whatever. And, as it happens, if I did, it would still be cheaper than taking the train.

Question: is it wrong to fly and then spend some money undoing the damage?

This question, or some variant of it, is something I get asked quite a lot, so having written a reply to my friend I figured I’d put it online as a blogpost, in case it’s of interest to anyone else. Here goes …

It’s a good question. And you’re one of the few people without a professional interest in the area to bother thinking about the cost per tonne of carbon abatement. Good for you!

I’m attaching the offsetting chapter from my last book which covers most of the arguments and alternatives more coherently that I will manage in an email. But you’ve already got to the heart of it, which is that, on the surface at least, the purely logical response is to fly and then spend the price difference on offsetting.

On the other hand, the reason that you’re even asking the question is, I suspect, that for some reason that answer feels wrong. That, I reckon, is not about the carbon cost in itself. After all, though taking long-haul flights add vast amounts to an individual’s carbon footprint, a one-off short trip from London to Scotland is comparable to, say, heating your flat for a few weeks, or half a new laptop, or indeed a few months’ worth of mobile phone calls – none of which (if I’m correct) you’d even think about offsetting or emailing anyone about. So why worry so much about the flight in particular? Partly, perhaps, because there’s an obvious alternative, but that doesn’t quite stack up as we almost always have choices – such as not buying a new laptop. Rather, I wonder if it’s because for various reasons choosing whether or not to fly has become some kind of de facto yardstick for expressing to ourselves and others whether we care about climate change.

My view is that this isn’t wholly irrational. We all know that our personal carbon footprints are basically irrelevant in the scheme of things. This is true not just because your 10 or 15 tonnes per year is such a small proportion of the 50 billion tonne global total. It’s also, I think, because we all instinctively know, even if we’ve never given it much thought, that the markets will ensure that the fossil fuels we individually choose not to consume will probably be burned somewhere else instead – or at least a large slice of them will. And that’s before you consider that UK internal flights are incorporated within the country’s overall carbon budgets. Assuming you believe that these targets will be met rather than exceeded across the whole system, that means it doesn’t really matter whether that carbon is released from your plane or a cement plant. Okay, so that’s an oversimplification, because the carbon budgets ignore (as far as I know) the extra impacts of burning kerosene at altitude, but the point still stands that our ability to effect emissions directly is extremely limited, once you consider the context.

Much more important and effective, probably, is to spend whatever energy we have to engage with the topic creating a narrative that makes it clear that at least some people in the UK and elsewhere care about climate change, and that policymakers should therefore do something meaningful about it. Not flying or rarely flying or never flying when there’s an alternative has become one of the standard ways that people put themselves in that camp of people who care – partly because it’s a hassle, and therefore serves the function of being a useful measure of commitment. All of which is a long-winded way of saying that deciding not to fly might be more rational than it immediately appears – albeit thanks to a social rather than a scientific kind of rationality.

I spent a long time thinking about this years ago and ended up deciding that a completely different – but probably just as reasonable – approach might be to fly as much as you want but make a pact with yourself to spend the hours of each flight writing letters to MPs about climate-related stuff – including the unsustainably fast rise in the number of flights. I don’t think I ever stuck with it (largely because I hate flying so very rarely do it) but I do believe that you can’t solve a tragedy of the commons only by personal action, and therefore that engaging as a citizen rather than a consumer is the crucial thing.

D x

PS. I did a background guide to flying and climate change here. But if you want the really juicy stuff you can try to decide how bad flying is relative to other forms of transport, which despite standard stats you will find online is actually partly about the timeframe you consider, which I could bore you about one day if you ever fancy it.

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