Living

I’m A Travel Writer Who Stopped Flying During The Pandemic. Can I Keep It Up For The Climate?

In 2016, I flew 37 times to destinations across the globe. Now, I’m trying to reduce my carbon footprint—and figure out just how much flying is okay.

The author’s view from the window seat, flying over Greenland.(Photo: Kat Tancock)

The view from my window seat, while flying over Greenland. Air travel melts more than 5,000 square metres of Arctic summer sea ice every year. (Photo: Kat Tancock)

It’s January 29, 2020. My boyfriend and I are in bed, chatting about our fast-approaching weekend in Mexico City. The novel coronavirus has been in the news—including, just a few days earlier, the first reported case in Canada.

Neither of us wants to confront the thought, but my boyfriend puts it out there: “Should we be cancelling this trip?”

“We are going to Mexico City,” I reply firmly. It’s been ages since we’ve seen our close friends who live there, and it’s hard to get our schedules to sync up. So we put our concerns aside and board the plane a couple of days later for a weekend filled with churros, guacamole, art and architecture walks.

Little did I know that the flight would be our last before the world changed.

The pandemic and its series of lockdowns changed everyone’s travel habits. The number of airline passengers dropped 92 percent between April 2019 and April 2020—just a couple of months after our Mexico City trip—and over the whole of 2020, international air travel dropped by 60 percent. Road travel, of course, plunged too. In the early days of the pandemic, those sitting at home snacking on sourdough marvelled at scenes of clear skies over typically smoggy cities like Delhi and Los Angeles.

If you had asked me a few years ago, I would have laughed in disbelief at the idea of not flying for two years straight. But now, 27 months since that four-day getaway, we still haven’t left the ground. It started as a way to avoid catching and spreading COVID-19. But all that lockdown-induced free time to ruminate made me ponder the world’s other slow-moving disaster —and my role in it. I stopped flying because of a pandemic. Can I keep it up for the sake of climate change?

Giving things up is personal, and what’s easy to quit for one of us might be a deal-breaker for another. For me, cutting out red meat at 13 and chicken and fish at 16 wasn’t a sacrifice at all, and I’ve never missed them. But plane travel? That’s been part of my identity since before I had an identity.

I took my first international flight at six months old, to meet family in New Zealand, and I still have my Air New Zealand Junior Jet Club travel log book kicking around somewhere. As an adult, based in Toronto and with family on opposite coasts, hops across Canada became a regular venture. So did work trips, like dropping into Winnipeg or Fredericton for a day to give a workshop or conference talk. Vacations, of course, are part of the tally: a yoga retreat in Argentina, a music festival in Wales, a beach getaway in Curaçao.

And then there’s travel writing. For a good chunk of the 2010s, I was flying around the world to cover destinations like Hong Kong, Iceland and Croatia for magazines and newspapers. I knew the environmental impact was big, but my denial was even bigger. I don’t eat meat and I don’t own a car, I would say to myself. It balances out.

While the author had to fly to get to Japan, she made use of the country’s excellent train system as well as walking and biking. This scene is from a bike tour in Osaka. (Photo: Kat Tancock)

While I had to fly to get to Japan, once there I made use of the country’s excellent train system as well as walking and biking. This scene is from a bike tour in Osaka. (Photo: Kat Tancock)

I’ve added up all the flights I took in 2016—it was a relatively big travel year, including trips to Singapore, Alaska and Switzerland—and there were 37 individual legs, for a total estimated footprint of about six tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e). Just for the flights. For context, the average Canadian transportation footprint is about five tons per year (out of a total lifestyle footprint of 14 tons), which mainly includes driving. The goal we should be aiming for? A total of 2.5 tons by 2030, a little less than the current impact of the average person in India. In other words, the flights to Singapore might have to go.

But how much flying is okay? It’s an impossible question that gets to the heart of global inequality: half of commercial aviation’s CO2 emissions come from just one percent of the world’s population, while more than 80 percent of humans have never been on a plane at all.

One group that’s trying to simplify the decision-making is The Jump, a U.K.-based organization whose goal is “less stuff, more joy.” They outline six lifestyle shifts that most people in wealthy countries should be making to combat climate change, one of which is a drastic reduction in flying: We should budget for one short-haul flight (less than 1,500 km) every three years—that’s roughly from Kelowna, B.C. to Winnipeg—or one long-haul every seven. Not so terrible, perhaps, if you can take the train to Zurich or Zagreb for a getaway. But what if you’re like me and visiting your parents means a long-haul flight?

To help me break down some of the numbers, I reached out to Angela Nagy, president and CEO of GreenStep, a Kelowna, B.C.-based consultancy that helps businesses and organizations reduce their environmental impact. Flying less and Zooming more is one of the many recommendations Nagy and her team make to clients, she says. Face-to-face is nice, but it can often be replaced by virtual meetings, as we’ve all learned over the past couple of years. There are also some tricks to reduce your impact when you do have to fly, like choosing economy, keeping your luggage light and opting for direct flights. And Prince Harry himself is behind an initiative to make it easier for us to pick routes with lower emissions.

But where Nagy really gets excited is in the potential of infrastructure to help everyone reduce emissions: innovations like ubiquitous electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, excellent public transport, electric airplanes, high-speed rail and ubiquitous bike lanes. The goal is fossil fuel alternatives that are a joy to use, not a sacrifice. “We need to seriously start making investments,” she says, “maybe diverting some of the carbon taxes into things that are going to allow us to drive down our carbon footprint as a country.”

Switzerland’s train system is so extensive, efficient and enjoyable to use that it’s a no-brainer to skip driving in favour of savouring views like this scene en route to St. Moritz. (Photo: Kat Tancock)

Switzerland’s train system is so extensive, efficient and enjoyable to use that it’s a no-brainer to skip driving in favour of savouring views like this scene en route to St. Moritz. (Photo: Kat Tancock)

And this is where global travel—when done sparingly—can be a good thing, as it helps fuel our imagination of what’s possible. In Switzerland, for instance, I’ve witnessed people riding the (frequent, comfortable and convenient) train to the top of the slopes, boots on, skis and poles in-hand. Imagine being able to do that in Canada. Or having the option of a high-speed, low-emissions train that goes between Calgary and Edmonton or Toronto and Montreal in less time than it takes to fly or drive, like the bullet trains between Tokyo and Osaka.

I’ve personally been strategizing how to get around the country without flying, as family visits are a non-negotiable for me. Canada’s long-distance trains are questionable when it comes to emissions, according to one University of Ottawa researcher, who found that they might actually be worse than flying, in part due to their diesel engines. I asked Nagy if road-tripping is a potential solution, and the answer is yes—if you’re in an EV. Averaging out the source of the electricity, her team estimated that a round trip for two people from Toronto to Kelowna in a Tesla Model Y would cost 0.21 tCO2e, compared with 1.86 tCO2e for flying and 1.87 tCO2e in a gas-powered car. (Nagy points out that these numbers don’t include the embodied carbon of the vehicles—the energy and materials that go into making them in the first place.)

Of course, skipping that one flight to Singapore or sightseeing on a road trip to B.C. isn’t going to stop global warming in its tracks. And I strongly believe that we have to get away from the idea of fixing climate change simply by reducing our personal carbon footprints, though that is an important part of it. We need institutions, corporations and governments to step up. This is a societal problem, and it needs society-level solutions. Plus, honestly? It’s pretty rich of me to spend decades jetting around the globe and then suddenly announce I’m going to cut back right when someone else might be planning for their first-ever trip out of the country.

But personal change to solve societal issues is kind of like voting. Your one vote will almost certainly not make a difference. But the votes of you and your neighbours? That’s what makes or breaks an election. And if you vote and campaign for the cause you believe in? That’s what changes the world.

So I’m going to try my hardest to reduce flying to the barest essentials—that’s seeing my family (when I can’t do it by car) and a vacation once in a blue moon, but probably no work trips. I’m going to help push for clean transportation options that make quitting fossil fuels a no-brainer. And I’m going to talk about it as much as I can without annoying my friends. Because every little bit counts when it comes to the consequences of climate change. For inspiration, I look to the words of climate justice writer Mary Annaïse Heglar in the book All We Can Save: “I know that a world warmed by 2 degrees Celsius is far preferable to one warmed by 3 degrees, or 6,” she writes. “And that I’m willing to fight for it with everything I have, because it is everything I have.”

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