20 pledges for 2020: Why I, The Independent’s deputy travel editor, have promised to go flight-free for a year

Helen Coffey
Helen Coffey has signed up to the flight-free pledge

I took 25 flights in the first half of 2019.

Twenty-five. That’s almost one a week. Let that sink in for a moment.

It wasn’t done intentionally – but, perhaps even worse, completely obliviously. Every other weekend, off I trotted, to Moscow, Doha, Rome and the rest, usually for no more than a weekend at a time. I could say that I excused my high flying lifestyle – pun very much intended – by arguing that it was all for work. With the best will in the world, being a travel journalist was always going to involve a certain amount of travel.

But, sadly, that would be giving me way too much credit. The truth is, I didn’t excuse it at all. It never even crossed my mind that I needed to.

Until, of course, a previously unimaginable and unprecedented shift in the public perception of flying started to emerge. The first time I really realised that a sea change was coming was Emma Thompson’s much-publicised fall from grace, when she flew 5,400 miles from LA to London in the spring to participate in the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations that were bringing the capital to a standstill. The actor and activist was pilloried by the Right and Left in equal measure (the former labelling her a hypocrite, the latter asserting they didn’t need her carbon-tainted help, thank you very much).

I remember feeling nonplussed by the whole thing. What was the big deal? She was using her platform to add clout to a much-needed protest demanding action on the coming climate crisis. Surely that was a good thing?

It wasn’t long afterwards that I heard of the flygskam (flight shame) and tågskryt (train brag) movements for the first time. Originating in Sweden and publicised by high-profile figures including Olympic athlete Bjorn Ferry and opera singer Malena Ernman, mother of teenage activist Greta Thunberg, the idea was to make the notion of flying something a little unsavoury – something you might not want to admit to doing in polite company. On the flip side, the “train brag” movement is all about celebrating rail travel, with participants posting pictures and videos of their beauty-filled overland journeys on social media.

The concept has even made its way over the North Sea, as I discovered when I came across the Flight Free UK movement. Founder Anna Hughes’ original aim was to get 100,000 people to sign up and pledge to stay grounded for a whole year.

“I haven’t flown for about 10 years,” she said, “but given the situation we’re now in, I felt like it wasn’t enough to reduce my own carbon footprint – I needed to open it up and do more. And it took over my life!”

I didn’t really expect to be joining the swelling ranks of do-gooders, to be perfectly honest. As journalists, we can easily become accomplished fantasists, convincing ourselves that we are somehow set apart from reality – here to observe and report, rather than participate.

But something changed in me after I spoke to Anna, along with a number of other committed non-flyers. They were, to a fault, impassioned and persuasive yet polite and non-judgemental. They were happy to take on huge personal expense and inconvenience, all in the hopes that it might help save the only habitable planet we’ve got. A seed was planted in my brain which grew – slowly but unstoppably – day by day, and has already led to me significantly cutting down on the number of flights I took in the latter half of 2019.

Now, it’s time to take the next step: a year of keeping both feet on the ground. Far from being some po-faced exercise in restraint, more than anything I hope this experience will prove that travel, in all its adventurous, diverse and mind-opening glory, is not only possible with clipped wings, but can even be enhanced by taking it slow.

I produced somewhere in the region of 6,000kg of CO2 from flying in 2019. Here’s to it being 0kg in 2020.

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