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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2 Responses to Is it ever okay to fly to Scotland?

  1. Leon P says:


    As ever, this is a remarkably insightful piece you’ve come up with. Thank you.

    I’m not sure I entirely buy the consumer/citizen dichotomy you put forward with regard to engaging with climate change. Seems to me our roles as citizens and consumers are inextricably linked so it cannot be a case of one being crucial and not the other.

    As you know, I quit flying some years back now. Yes, it’s hard. And yes, I probably have been guilty of occasionally using it as a shorthand way of letting people know I care about climate change. But it is ultimately, as you rightly point out, a personal choice I made “as a consumer”. Earlier this year, my wife took our children to Belize, her country of birth. I don’t fly so I stayed in Harlesden, London, alone (just writing that still hurts).

    In the run up to their trip abroad, during it and for some weeks afterwards, I probably engaged in more conversations about climate change with non-activists, many of them lengthy and some quite heated, than I had previously had in all the months and years since I stopped flying. I spoke with shopkeepers, teachers, friends, neighbours, even the local lollipop lady. All those conversations began the same way – everyone wanted to know why I had not travelled with my family. My choice as a consumer, in other words, led me to engage as a citizen.

    I’m not anything like as active or as knowledgeable as you when it comes to this, but I join groups, go to talks, demos, write to MPs and others, and try unsuccessfully to keep up with some of the ridiculous amount of new developments in the field (hey, I even read your blog). However, in terms of reaching out to those who don’t have a professional interest or those who are not like-minded when it comes to climate change, by far the most significant contribution I have made came about through choosing not to fly. “You can’t solve a tragedy of the commons only by personal action” but surely all communal actions begin with the personal. When those individual acts reach a critical mass (not a minor one) we’re on the way to radical change. It’s not quite as catchy as “the personal is political” but how about “the consumer is the citizen”? I can’t believe I just wrote that and please don’t quote me out of context!

    Now I’ve not only joined Twitter, but have actually commented on a blog too. I blame you and your brother for all of this – you’re a bad influence.

    Leon x

  2. duncanclark says:

    Thanks for this insightful comment, Leon, and sorry for the tardy response.

    I completely agree – being a consumer is one part of being a citizen, so the two can’t really be separated. I guess all I was trying to say in that last paragraph is that when it comes to climate change, words can sometimes speak just as loudly as actions.

    That paragraph aside, though, I think your Belize example fits well with my broader point: that the real value in you not flying may be the social signal it sends and the moral authority it gives you, rather than the direct effect on emissions. After all, you could have offset that Belize trip five times over and that may have resulted, in the short term, in less carbon entering the atmosphere than if you’d stayed at home. But by having a no-fly rule and sticking to it even when it means a real personal sacrifice, you demonstrate that there are people out there who genuinely care about climate change and are prepared to take action to deal with it. That triggers all those conversations, which will hopefully make a much bigger difference overall than any carbon offset.

    One thing that strikes me, thinking about your experience, is that it’s unlikely the social signal would have been anything like as strong in the Scotland example discussed above – simply because the level of sacrifice involved in taking the train is relatively small and partly a matter of personal preference (lots of people would think of the sleeper-train as a treat, after all). That fits with what you said about having not flown for years but the conversations only really sparking off when your no-flights rule meant a more visible and significant sacrifice: staying at home alone while your family went on a trip that you would have loved to be part of.

    I guess the same applies in other kinds of personal/political action. Going to a protest may make a small difference, but if you make a real personal sacrifice – such as getting yourself arrested (as thousands have just done in the States over the Keystone pipeline) – then people are much more likely to take note.

    The thing that worries me about the whole sacrifice thing (besides the sad thought of you alone in Harlesden while the kids were playing under a palm tree!) is one niggling counterargument. Could it be that by focusing too much on individual contributions to climate change – and perhaps flying – us greens are inadvertently strengthening the perceived link between solving climate change on the one hand and personal culpability and austerity on the other? And if so, could it be that we’re actually making it harder rather than easier for politicians to force through the most important (and less scary) elements of climate protection, such as investment in clean, efficient energy systems and vehicles, none of which should necessitate much if any personal sacrifice?

    I’m not entirely sure what I think about this. Mainly I don’t think it’s true, because unless the people calling for climate protection are taking steps to reduce their own footprint, their calls for broader change are likely to be dismissed as hypocritical pie in the sky. Furthermore, since we’re already over the safe threshold for CO2 concentrations, we’d need collectively to fly less even if we solved all the other sources of carbon emissions. That said, I do think there’s something to the argument that certain green choices might send counterproductive as well as productive messages – and also I’d like to think that the world we’re pushing for isn’t one that’s incompatible with you ever going to Belize to visit your family there.

    It’s a knotty one!

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