It didn’t start out as a firm goal. But by the time I’d got to August without once having boarded a plane, I decided to follow through with it: 2007 would be a non-flying year. Why would I subject myself to such an ordeal? Blame The Independent. Working for an environmentally campaigning newspaper tends to prick the conscience. When you find your head crammed daily with facts such as “flying is the single most polluting thing an individual can do” and “aviation is the fastest growing source of greenhouse emissions”, strolling up the gangway of a budget airline starts to feel a tad irresponsible.
Don’t misunderstand me. I enjoy the freedom and opportunities plane travel brings as much as anyone. And over the years, I have probably been responsible for enough carbon emissions to drown an ice shelf full of polar bears. But there comes a time when you have to put your money where your eco-platitude-sounding mouth is. After reading about http://www.lowflyzone.org, a website that encourages people to take a “pledge” not to fly for a year, other than in an emergency, I saw my runway to redemption.
So how did it go? It wasn’t the ordeal you might imagine. At the risk of performing the newsprint equivalent of thrusting my holiday snaps upon you, let me briefly describe how my girlfriend and I spent our time off this year. In May, we rented a cottage in the Lake District. Last month, we hiked from London to Canterbury along the North Downs Way, staying above Kentish pubs along the way. If that fills you with horror, let me quickly add that we weren’t confined to the British Isles. In August, we took a two-week rail trip around Europe, visiting Brussels, Munich, Venice and Paris. I won’t irritate you any further. And I’m sure you’re heartily sick of reading articles about the joys of train travel and the comparative hell of airport waiting lounges. I would merely add that with a little imagination, cutting down on leisure flying is quite bearable.
There was, however, one difficult moment. In September, a friend from my university days was getting married in the Poitou-Charentes region of France. Another friend, Steve, kindly offered to give me a lift down in his car, taking the ferry from Dover. But at the last minute Steve decided to stay in France after the ceremony, in order to use up some of his holiday entitlement. Fair enough, but it meant there was to be no lift home. The solution? “Tell you what,” said Steve. “I’ll book you on to a Ryanair flight from Poitiers.” Oh dear.
After admitting to “the pledge” and explaining that I’d be taking the train home, Steve pointed something out: “The Eurostar will be 150, and a flight’s only 50”. He was right too. When I acknowledged this economic logic and yet remained unyielding, he looked at me as if my purchase on sanity was slipping. If you want to leave people lost for words, I would recommend going against your own economic self-interest.
But though I managed to resist the lure of Ryanair, the thought occurred to me that Steve had articulated the problem perfectly. It is no use expecting self-denial to get people off planes. If air travel is cheaper, or more convenient, than the alternative, people are generally going to choose it, no matter how “green” they claim to be. The public have to be hit where it will make a real difference in their behaviour: the wallet. The future of the planet will depend not on our consciences, but our bank balances.
Of course, taking the train was not against my economic interests in the larger scheme of things. It is hardly going to be to my economic benefit if, over the coming century, there is mass crop failure in Africa, perennial drought in China, forest fires in the Mediterranean, and violent hurricanes assaulting the Americas all disasters that the scientific research on climate change predicts with increasingly terrifying clarity. Anyone who believes we can go on living our lives in the manner to which we have become accustomed while such cataclysms pound the planet seems to me to be living in a fantasy. No; the problem is that the true cost to me, Steve, and everyone else on the planet, of our polluting lifestyles, has not been factored into our economic transactions.
More environmentally friendly means of transportation such as trains and buses need to be heavily subsidised to bring down their price. But first and foremost, the price of aviation fuel needs to rise dramatically to push up ticket prices. So does that of petrol. And the world’s governments need to co-operate to make that happen. Never mind non-flying pledges, if you really want to leave your friends lost for words, tell them that you’re in favour of sky-high fuel prices.