My ears pricked up at the slight diss of my home town. A man from the Midlands on the Cork-Dublin train was talking, loudly, about his holiday plans.
“€320 for flights, accommodation, B&B, Wednesday to Saturday in Spain — no contest”.
His (foolish, in my opinion) decision to forego a holiday in the beautiful city of Cork for sunny Spain was based on the cost to his pocket and not on the true cost of his mini-break.
The cost to the environment of our frivolous flights is considerable, but not always considered.
Even if we are doing our bit for the environment — recycling, carrying reusable water bottles or coffee cups, driving less and insulating the house — if we continue to fly without counting the carbon emissions then our climate-conscious lifestyle choices are diminished.
In order to limit the average rise in Earth’s temperature to 2C (which is the best worst-case scenario), we need to get our individual carbon footprints down to about 2.3 tons (2,300kg) of CO2 per year.
Currently, in Ireland, we generate around 13 tonnes CO2 per capita.
A weekend shopping trip to London (return flight emits 295kg of CO2 per person) or a hen party in Barcelona (693 kg CO2) or a flight to New York (1,937kg CO2) to visit a relative all add up.
A return flight to New York emits about the same amount of CO2 as driving the average car for a year.
Clearly, air travel eats into a big chunk of our carbon budget. If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters.
There is a global movement, originating in Sweden, to make people aware of the climate impact of flying. Swedes have coined the term ‘flygskam’ (pronounced “fleeg-skahm”) or ‘flight shame’ and last year Swedish air passenger numbers dropped by 4%.
Sweden’s most famous climate activist, Greta Thunberg, drew global attention to the idea of snubbing air travel when she travelled to the United Nations Climate Summit in New York by yacht. It’s a massive sacrifice of convenience and time that most of us couldn’t consider, but she did it to highlight the urgency of the climate crisis.
Air travel is cheap because airlines and passengers don’t pay for the pollution they create. Plane fuel is not taxed and airline tickets don’t have VAT on them.
Think of how much it costs to fill up a car’s fuel tank — €50 or €60? AA Ireland says 50-60% of that cost is tax for the State. And for every €2.50 coffee, the café owner collects 33c to give to the government.
That airlines get to run their highly successful businesses without paying fuel tax or VAT seems mad to me.
People Before Profit’s election manifesto included a 33 cent per litre levy on aviation fuel, which they say could bring in €900 million per year.
Unsurprisingly, Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary has said levies and extra taxes are terrible ideas that would be bad for Ireland’s economy. Airlines argue that they are investing in new, fuel-efficient planes and actively reducing emissions, but passenger numbers continue to grow so any reductions are cancelled out by more and more people taking flights.
Others argue that air travel only contributes to 2.5% of global carbon emissions and we should divert climate action efforts elsewhere, but at a time when we need to dramatically cut our use of fossil fuels, every percentage point counts.
Unfortunately, we live on an island and half our families and friends are dotted around the world. We are a small, open economy with trade links around the world. So what can we do?
Perhaps it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. How about halving the number of flights or just taking essential flights?
Hands up, I’ve travelled extensively in the past but now that I’m aware of the problem and the climate emergency, I’m trying to make a change — I’m going on a flight diet.
Last year, I took two return flights — one on a family holiday to Barcelona and one to Portugal to film at a wind energy project. As part of my ‘flight diet’ I’m going to try and take just one flight this year.
We’ve been invited to a friend’s wedding in the south of France and unfortunately the sailing and railing options will take too long for a short trip, so we’re going to fly.
But we are considering doing the family holiday in Ireland, or taking the ferry to France or Spain and embracing the benefits of slow travel.
Many people are snubbing flights and taking ferries and trains to get to their destinations.
I know people who ‘sail and rail’ to the UK and onwards to mainland Europe, and work on the train and build the travel time into their working day. It’s a different mindset.
Websites like www.seat61.com help with slow travel options, showing travellers how to get to far-flung destinations without flying.
I don’t find airports much fun — they’re full of tired, stressed and over-caffeinated people and cranky children.
I’m hoping that my new ‘flight diet’ will not only reduce my carbon footprint, but also lead to more relaxing travel experiences. I may be naïve but I’ll let you know how I get on!