Approximately one hour into a 22 hour low carbon emission bus journey to Copenhagen and I am already squirming in my seat. The bus has only crawled 4 miles through traffic to Peckham from London Victoria. I am trapped inside a maths equation on a physics test where speed drew the short straw.
This is another kind of test, one primarily based on my patience and the coccyx I fractured slipping in a pool of gravy as a 15-year-old waitress. A marathon in sitting still. Don’t misunderstand my motivation for taking the bus, I love flying. The gut flipping thrill of take-off and cruising above the clouds could never grow old, but I can’t continue making empty excuses to justify taking multiple flights a year.
Catching a flight is the fastest way to deepen your carbon footprint. Even a cycling-addicted, energy-saving lightbulbs customer ruins any environmental kudos by taking two return flights to Europe plus one long-haul flight per year, according to the WWF carbon footprint calculator. Flying regularly is the privilege of very few, even in an era of low-cost airlines. It is estimated only approximately 18 percent of people worldwide have ever taken a flight. The percentage flying regularly is much smaller. This means a tiny proportion of people are responsible for a staggering amount of damage. But is long-distance low carbon travel an even further unreachable privilege?
In 2019, choosing a less carbon-intensive mode of travel involves adjusting the balance between speed, distance, and time, meaning you spend more time travelling. Where carbon is saved, time is lost. Unfortunately, I am neither a wealthy member of the Swedish Flygskam movement (meaning ‘flight shame’ in Swedish, a movement that prides itself in travelling by train instead of flying) nor organised enough to book six months in advance. Last-minute trains are expensive so rather than fork out £400 for a single train journey three weeks in advance, I decided to face a 22 hour budget coach to Copenhagen, followed by a surprisingly cheap 6 hour train to visit a friend in Stockholm.
On the cross-continental Flixbus journey, my sense of space-time isn’t distorted like on a flight. Aviation has graced us with an ethereal disconnect from travelling long distances. The wizardry of modern aeronautical engineering has emancipated us from the earth and sea. We can board a plane at breakfast and arrive hundreds, or even thousands of miles away before lunchtime.
Unfortunately, this has consequences—the speed necessary to launch an 80 tonne Boeing up and across vast distances in relatively little time involves an incredible release of energy. Energy that currently comes from burning carbon-rich fossil fuels and releasing hundreds of pounds of CO2 into the most vulnerable parts of the atmosphere, exacerbating climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates “that the climate impact of aircraft is two to four times greater than the effect of their carbon dioxide emissions alone.”
The overnight trip from Antwerp to Copenhagen is long. I manage 6 hours of sleep before my neighbour’s alarm inexplicably goes off at 5.45am, waking up the entire bus while he snoozes on. Bleary-eyed, I look outside. We are trundling across the Baltic sea, over the Storbæltbaren sea bridge, which connects the Danish island of Funen to the Øresund region and Copenhagen.
I guess this is what Canadian journalist and ‘slow movement’ advocate Carl Honoré means about ‘savouring the journey’ by ‘slowing down life’s pace’. As the bus rolls on, I do find myself appreciating this extended opportunity to settle into a different pace, to read, to gaze outside at the world passing by, to listen to podcasts. I feel calmer. A little achy. After a grim start in London, I am sold on the benefits of slow travel after taking the final stretch by train to Stockholm. The train is luxuriously comfortable and I have been chatting about Orkney with the 60-year-old French primary school teacher sitting next to me. She is also taking a flightless journey from her home in Brittany to holiday in Northern Sweden. As we talk, the train hurtles through the hazily idyllic Swedish countryside dotted with lakes and red summer houses.
Gen Z and millennials are under so much pressure to be the best version of themselves in every sphere of life; it is easy to get sucked into the ‘cult of busy’ and constant self-improvement. Slow travel is an opportunity to let go and exist at a different speed, if only for a little while. True relaxation is one without the guilt of knowing your actions are helping mess up the planet for millions of people in the Global South who have never taken a flight, but will experience the worst consequences of climate change. Keeping that in mind, I’m no saint and decided to catch a flight back to the U.K. in the end.
The present practicalities of travelling like this with a full-time job and a holiday allowance of 20 days a year are tricky to navigate. Cultural changes like a four-day working week, investment in decent train infrastructure and timetabling, and avoiding a ‘last-minute dot com’ approach to holidays and work travel would help. But in the short-term, recognising the extreme privilege it is to fly and avoiding it as much as possible is a start.
“I feel so guilty.”
I’m on a video call with a friend, let’s call him Sid, who works as cabin crew for a major airline. He’s generation Z and has a plant-based diet. He tells me he tried to eat scallops the other night when he landed late in France. He couldn’t do it, felt too bad. Instead, he picked at the carrot puree underneath and forgot about the seafood. Sid feels bad about consuming animal products, and about contributing to food waste, but he feels worse about his carbon-intensive job. It’s an inescapable web of shame.
“I do feel guilty that flying is just doing so much damage. I always think, when we’re coming into land and we have to wait for half an hour while we loop around a holding pattern…how much fuel is this burning?”
Sid wanted to vote for the Green Party in the upcoming European Parliament elections, until he heard the party recommend that people limit themselves to one flight a year. “I just can’t get behind that”, he sighs.
Taking climate action means readdressing the foundations of our identities. It starts with flying. When I was growing up I was told that travelling would make me a well-rounded, employable person. I was promised that the only way to truly understand a culture or to learn a language was by jumping on a plane to whichever destination I felt inclined towards. If there were one thing I knew I wanted when I grew up, it was to feel the glamour of being a frequent flyer. It was the narrative of the educated and of the well-to-do. Arriving by plane makes any entrance grander. Planes make people feel important.
Now the narrative has, rightly so, shifted dramatically. Our educated friends in Sweden have begun a phenomenon called ‘flygskam’ or ‘flying shame’. Social stigma in Sweden surrounding flying has led to a sharp drop in the number of aeroplane passengers in recent months, prompting airlines to up their efforts to reduce emissions, or at least pretend to, as all the best green-washing corporations do.
I’m not here to talk economics, although the sheer financial fuckery of a world where rich people have decided flying isn’t cool anymore hits me when Sid suggests I Google ‘flightradar24’. It’s a web tracking tool which shows all the flights in the world in real-time. Thousands of pixelated yellow planes shuffle and stutter over a green and blue map of the world. It’s astounding to think of all those goods and people above us, whose livelihoods depend on fuel-guzzling jumbo jets.
Climate change is hard for Sid and I to talk about. I’m a climate researcher with the luxury of taking the moral high-ground because my job allows me to do so. Frequent flying has been a part of my social makeup, but I’m leaving it behind. I’ve stopped taking weekend trips and city breaks that rely on short-haul flights. Where I can, I take the train, even though it is often more expensive to do so. I console Sid by telling him I had a beef roast the other Sunday.
I ask him, aside from guilt and shame, how the recent school strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests made him feel. He tells me that during the protests there had been a rumour one morning that activists were going to chain themselves to the runway. As Sid belted himself in, ready for take-off, he prayed silently for the activists to go ahead and lie down on the tarmac to halt the take-off. I see that the idea of just one day without flights emissions from Heathrow fills him with a feeling of relief and hope. Sid’s colleagues apparently grumbled at the protests, found them pesky, but I wonder how many of them also turned secret wishes for the environment over in their minds as they ascended towards the sky.
This week, climate activist and journalist Naomi Klein tweeted powerfully in response to Democrat Joe Biden’s plans to craft a middle-ground climate policy: “No Joe, there is no ‘middle ground’ on climate breakdown—there is bold, transformative action or there is sinking ground, burning ground and churning ground.”
There is no middle ground. We have to change today, but that means continuing to open up dialogue, especially with people whose jobs prevent them from taking the type of climate action they’d like to. If we can’t have middle of the ground solutions then perhaps we can have middle of the ground listening. Sid’s grateful for the climate strikes, if activists hadn’t taken bold action, he points out, we wouldn’t be having this difficult discussion.
Shame locks lips and stifles empathy. Shaming is often a pastime of the most privileged. For many, it’s not that they won’t change, it’s that they can’t, yet. Sid loves the earth, but he loves his livelihood too. It’s not about greed for Sid, it’s about putting plant-based food on the plate.