a change in time

the small changes we make everyday will all add up to create a more sustainable way of living


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The right to fly

When Anthony James told our sustainability class that he had decided not to fly anymore, we were left with no doubt regarding how committed he was to shrinking his ecological footprint. I learnt a great deal from these classes however it was this particular declaration that has stuck with me. I have since oscillated between admiring his resolve and, somewhat cynically, thinking ‘as if one person refusing to fly will make any difference’. Today I am going to consider a few facts and opinions on the topic – our right to fly.

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The ubiquitous ‘reaching your destination’ shot. Landing in LA, October 2012

In February this year I came across an article entitled, ‘How far can we get without flying?’ The tagline is ‘when a climate scientist decided to stop flying to cut his carbon emissions, he caught a glimpse of the post-oil future.’ It immediately reminded me of Anthony’s decision; my curiosity was aroused. The author of the article, Peter Kalmus, created a basic pie chart of his personal greenhouse gas emissions for 2010.

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I don’t think this was the actual pie chart however it certainly works for the magazine article. I always enjoy an accompanying visual. 

Kalmus introduces the term, cognitive dissonance – ‘the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioural decisions and attitude change.’ The first time I heard this phrase, it rang true to me, especially after I was introduced to the kinds of changes we humans would need to embrace if we really want to make a difference to our CO2 emissions. Most of us are aware of the impact that flying has on the planet. I have to admit I didn’t realise just how extreme the impact is.

An excerpt from Kalmus’ article:

Hour for hour, there’s no better way to warm the planet than to fly in a plane. If you fly coach from Los Angeles to Paris and back, you’ve just emitted 3 tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, 10 times what an average Kenyan emits in an entire year. Flying first class doubles these numbers.

However, the total climate impact of planes is likely two to three times greater than the impact from the CO2 emissions alone. This is because planes emit mono-nitrogen oxides into the upper troposphere, form contrails, and seed cirrus clouds with aerosols from fuel combustion. These three effects enhance warming in the short term.      

But even after being exposed to this kind of information, I feel unwilling to let go of what feels like ‘my right to fly’. The Big Overseas Trip, which once would have been something we aimed for at least once in our lives, has become, due to cheap airfares, something we now feel inclined to factor in every two years or so. And even after all the travel Peter and I have done, and the fact that flying is a significant drain on Peter’s wellbeing, we still toss around the notion of another trip to LA to see friends or a return trip to Barcelona, to see the Sagrada Familia, which was covered in scaffolding when we visited in 1985.

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If you really love your friends and family, you will make the effort to fly interstate or overseas to see them. 

Where does this version of cognitive dissonance leave me? Recently I thought that maybe if everyone was assigned a quota of kilometres they could use to travel by plane, we could still fly, but with a  substantial decrease in damage to the planet. It is unlikely that this will happen. Meanwhile, when the prospect of flying is in the air, we will seriously consider whether the flight is necessary or whether we can find some other way to satisfy the desire to travel. It took Kalmus ‘three years to quit’, so I figure that we still have a bit of wiggle room. To fly or not to fly, that is the question. What do you think?