We are the climate-changers: aero-mobility and flight shame

By Malcolm Scott

I’ve been reading Shaun Hendy’s #NoFly (Hendy, 2019)[1] about his experiences as a senior academic who gave up flying for the entire year of 2018 and reduced his carbon emissions from travel from 19 tonnes in 2017 (three times the NZ per-captia average) to just over 1 tonne in 2018, a 95% reduction but he didn’t take a single flight in that year. Hendy was very committed to achieve this and confined his travel to domestic trips only via car/bus/train and explained how missing a year of international travel impacted on his work and career. In an interview with Stuff he was quoted that ‘the most common reason for flying is to see friends and family’ (Macdonald, 2019)[2] but this may not actually be accurate, particularly concerning international travel where about a third is from international tourism (globally 1.13 billion travellers in 2014 and predicted to reach 1.8 billion by 2030, UNTWO).[3] Also consider frequent flyers (typically business travellers) making up a higher relative proportion, for example in France just 5% of the population account for 50% of overall distances covered (Cohen & Kantenbacher, 2019).[4] In 2017 Hendy travelled 84,000 kilometres and that was not a particularly big travel year for him, so it is likely that many New Zealand academics are clocking up 10’s of thousands of kilometres of business travel annually – it would be worthwhile for Universities New Zealand to survey and report on this. Factoring in NZ international student travel, with the universities making up about 20% (23,000 international students in 2017)[5] the overall per capita international travel carbon footprint for the university sector is likely to be well above the 7.4 tonnes per capita NZ average.[6]

It seems to me that reducing business and tourism aero mobility is a simple way to make really significant CO2 emission reductions – could business travellers realistically reduce their air travel by 50% and still get the job done, in most cases this may be so. And for tourism – instead of taking an annual overseas holiday (as some may do), a bi-annual holiday might also reduce air travel emissions by up to 50%. My intention is not to blame frequent flyers, ‘flight shaming’ (Harper, 2019)[7], also referred to as flygskam a Swedish term for ‘flying shame’ (Beddington, 2019)[8] but I do believe we all have a shared responsibility to reduce unnecessary air travel. In Sweden domestic air travel dropped 8% in the first quarter of 2019 (ibid.), something worth celebrating. However, if you think purchasing carbon-offsetting credits makes everything okay (and less than 10% of travellers do)[9] this doesn’t mitigate for the damage caused to atmospheric ozone from jet engine nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions – one of many secrets the airline industry would rather the public did not know about:

  • At airliner cruising altitudes, above 12,000 metres, NOx persists in the atmosphere for about a year and contributes to the breakdown of atmospheric ozone, below 9,000m it does not;
  • The aviation industry has known this for three decades (Egli, 1991)[10], but refuses to lower cruising altitudes and will not self-regulate.
  • In addition to the CO2 and NOx loading above 12,000m ‘artificial cirrus clouds formed by aircraft exhaust’ traps heat that has added to increases in Earth surface temperatures since the 1970s (Freeland, 2018, p.72).[11]
  • Airline complicity with covert aerosol geoengineering operations using chemical and nano-particulate jet fuel additives and modified pylon dispersal systems (ibid. p.51-71), that pose a threat to public health (Whiteside & Herndon, 2018)[12] and are subject to continuing civil litigation (LASG, 2016).[13]

The only way to mitigate the effects of these emissions at altitude is to either reduce airliner cruising to below 9,000m, or reduce the number of planes flying – by choosing to fly less.  For example, a NZ-UK return flight of 38,000km emits a carbon equivalent of over 7000 Kg per passenger which is about four years of private motor vehicle driving for the average New Zealander. By forgoing just one overseas flight we can make a bigger contribution to our individual effort to reduce planet heating emissions than years of cycling or walking and leaving the car in the driveway (but these are also good to do for lots of other reasons too). Personal trips to visit family and friends overseas are not the main drivers of aero mobility growth – it’s mostly tourism and business travel.

We have an opportunity to change this – the University of Canterbury travel policy is due for a scheduled review in January 2020, its first scheduled review since September 2017.[14] Any staff member, or student or member of the public for that matter, could make a submission about ways the university could be more environmentally responsible about air travel. Some options for consideration:

  1. Choose airlines offering a carbon emissions off-setting scheme in preference to airlines that do not.
  2. Require the traveller to use an emissions calculator to estimate their total air travel carbon footprint, and plan an itinerary that keeps emissions to a minimum.
  3. Factor in carbon emissions off-setting fees in estimating overall cost of travel.
  4. Reward ground-travel options (bus/train) with carbon-credit that can be put toward future unavoidable air travel.
  5. Where suitable ground travel options exist – decline requests for air travel.

The final point (5.) might seem a bit extreme for some, but just how bad does the global climate change emergency (Ripple et al, 2019)[15] and spiralling ecological crisis[16] have to get before we as a university begin to ‘walk-the-talk’ (literally walk, or ride a bus), on making meaningful institutional and individual behavioural change toward reducing the staggering emissions profile of air travel.


[1] Hendy, S. (2019) #NoFly: Walking the talk on climate change. Wellington. Bridget Williams Books.

[2] Macdonald, N. (2019). Physicist Shaun Hendy maps the lows, highs and sleepless buses of a no-fly year. Stuff. Retrieved from https://www.stuff.co.nz/environment/climate-news/116310946/physicist-shaun-hendy-maps-the-lows-highs-and-sleepless-buses-of-a-nofly-year

[3] UNTWO. (2015). Tourism highlights. https://www.e-unwto.org/doi/pdf/10.18111/9789284416899

[4] Cohen, S. A., & Kantenbacher, J. (2019). Flying less: personal health and environmental co-benefits. Journal of Sustainable Tourism, https://doi.org/10.1080/09669582.2019.1585442

[5] Ministry of Education (2018). Retrieved from https://www.educationcounts.govt.nz/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/193474/EEL-Annual-Report-201718.pdf

[6] Ministry for the Environment (2019). Retrieved from https://www.mfe.govt.nz/sites/default/files/media/Climate%20Change/snapshot-nzs-greenhouse-gas-inventory-1990-2017.pdf

[7] Harper, J. (2019). How many tourists will be too many? Stuff. Retrieved from https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/117653086/how-many-tourists-are-too-many-tourists

[8] Beddington, E. (2019). A-Z of climate anxiety: how to avoid meltdown. The Observer. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/dec/08/a-z-of-climate-anxiety-how-to-avoid-meltdown

[9] Ritchie et al. (2019). Effects of climate change policies on aviation carbon offsetting: a three-year panel study. Journal of Sustainable Tourism. DOI: 10.1080/09669582.2019.1624762

[10] Egli, R. (1991). Air traffic and changing climate. Environmental Conservation. 18: 73-74 Retrieved from https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/85218723.pdf

[11] Freeland, E. (2018). Under an Ionized Sky: From Chemtrails to Space Fence Lockdown. Port Townsend WA. Feral House. ISBN 978-1627310536

[12] Whiteside, M., Herndon, J. M. (2018). Aerosolized coal fly ash: risk factor for COPD and respiratory disease. Journal of Advances in Medicine and Medical Research, 26 (7), 1-13.

[13] LASG (2016). Legal Alliance to Stop Geoengineering:  Notice of Intent to File Citizensʼ Suits Pursuant to Federal Clean Water Act and Federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Retrieved from http://www.stopgeoengineeringlegalalliance.com/news

[14] University of Canterbury Travel Policy, retrieved from https://www.canterbury.ac.nz/about/governance/ucpolicy/general/travel-policy/

[15] Ripple, W.J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T.M., Barnard, P., Moomaw, W.R. (2019). World scientisits’ warning of a climate emergency. Bioscience, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biz088

[16] Locke P. (2019). UC Must Recognize The Ecological Crisis. Retrieved from https://blogs.canterbury.ac.nz/univoice/2019/09/03/uc-must-recognize-the-ecological-crisis/

2 thoughts on “We are the climate-changers: aero-mobility and flight shame

  1. Great read Malcolm not that I got through it all but it opens the mind to other forms of travel. Maybe horse drawn will become popular again

  2. As I have posted on this forum (and others) before, we have to raise the price of carbon. Shame, guilt and social responsibility will not get us as far as we need to get. “Economics contains one fundamental inconvenient truth about climate change policy: For any policy to be effective in slowing global warming, it must raise the market price of carbon…” (William Nordhaus, Nobel prize winner for his work on climate change policy and modelling). Yet we are bombarded with shame and guilt. In this world one group of people declare the actions of another group as sinful, immoral or unethical and slams them for their behaviour. It’s a world of outrage and vitriol where the self-proclaimed righteous judge the sinners. It all happens on social media where there is little right of reply. It’s a world where one proves ones qualities with an immense amount of virtue signalling. I refuse to use a plastic straw to show I care and to save the planet – whether banning plastic straws actually saves the planet or not is beside the point. Intention and caring is enough. And I’m over it.

    One big problem in this world is that ALL flying is sinful, ALL plastic is bad and so on. But this is clearly not true. If a cyclone hits a Pacific Island we want to be able to fly supplies there in a hurry. Plastic has many many very beneficial uses. But now we have “plastic anxiety”. I kid you not, it’s a thing – see https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/117322980/young-kiwis-anxiety-about-plastic-similar-to-previous-nuclear-war-fears. Plastic is not like a nuclear weapon.

    Zero flying is clearly not the aim. What we want is the optimal amount of flying – the amount of flying that generates the largest overall net benefit**. In the shame world, change is based on guilt and not value. One group sets themselves up as judge to declare that “this flying is unnecessary but this flying is not”. Why is business travel and tourism less worthy than visiting family? I am in no position to judge that. In a world where carbon is properly priced it is not necessary that I judge your choices. Individuals can make the choice for themselves. And everyone is forced to confront that choice because of the price signal – not just those who feel so much guilt when they sneakily look up webjet.co.nz when they think no-one is looking.

    The university should be advocating for a decent ETS. The price of flying will then rise and we will get less of it but what we will get is the most highly valued flying. Then no-one needs to be judge. And if it really wants to go above and beyond, the university could levy all flights taken by staff and then use those funds to purchase ETS emission rights and then retire them.

    Stephen Hickson
    ** net benefits = total benefits less costs. Costs include external costs such as environmental costs and are priced in with a well designed carbon tax or emissions trading scheme.

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