To fly or not to fly

Two interesting articles in Germany’s Die Zeit on flying and climate change: One resolutely calling on our responsibility to stop flying immediately; the other saying that not flying is not going to save the world.

“Those who still fly are climate sinners”, writes Kathrin Wessling. The straightforward arguments, including how irresponsible it is to fly on routes that have a competitive and direct train alternative, mainly in a domestic context, are laid out to a liberal and eco-conscious audience that should be called out for their hypocrisy.

Only 18% of all humans have been onboard a plane, last year, only 3% of the world’s population took a flight. However, they caused 5% of all greenhouse emissions. A few privileged people thus ruin the climate. You can be a vegan and choose all sorts of other eco-friendly lifestyles. Fly intercontinental once per year and none of it matters.

Tech and science writer Niels Boeing (no pun), however, opines that not flying is not going to save the climate. In short, it’s our economies’ dependence on fossil fuel that is to blame for most of our emissions. Changing that system requires political change, not individual consumer decisions.

While Boeing agrees that a lot of airborne travel can and should be cut, he suggests that democratized flying is one of the late 20th and 21st century’s major accomplishments. Visiting friends and relatives, bringing cultures together — these things should not be reversed.

If anything, we should intensify our search for technological solutions to make flying more carbon-neutral, e.g. via effective offsetting, better fuels, etc.

Boeing’s article makes me sleep better, but a slightly sour taste remains. He quotes a study that attributes 2% of total emissions to flying, much less than the 5% by the other article. Maybe we need to stop flying and let people from emerging markets taste the flavor of air tourism and international mobility? What if the 3% of the world’s population flying each year become 6%?

Then, where will the radical political change come from if not inspired by individual consumption decisions? I agree that the burden cannot be on us consumers always, but to wait for political parties to take these radical positions onboard, everyone needs to put the money where their mouth is.

Finally, technological solutions may one day solve a lot of the problems. Until then, the prudent thing would be to stop flying. By racketing up prices for tickets, we’ll have only the rich being able to do so. Perhaps we should ration available flight miles per capita per year. Or have you write an application as to why you need to go on a trip. Sound wrong? Well, talk to your children about this in 40 years.

As you can tell, I am thinking about this a lot these days. I have a growing sense of flygskam, especially about my naivety in the past to get on airplanes without thinking about it. I haven’t been back to Europe in two years and aim to cut down my non-essential flying.

However, living in Japan, having family and friends in distant places, my life would be impossible without air travel. Having come here, and having become the person I am would be impossible, too.

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