In one of my more radical moods a couple of years ago, I decided that jumping on a plane was about as helpful to the environment as bludgeoning a pangolin to death with some illegally-logged mahogany, so I decided to quit flying for leisure, before committing career suicide last year by knocking business air travel on the head too.
I even signed a pledge, launched by the campaign group Flight Free UK, which at the time was trying valiantly to export Sweden’s flygskam (“flight shame”) movement to the UK, by getting as many people as it could (which wasn’t many) to quit flying in 2020. Given that we haven’t been allowed to travel much further than Sainsbury’s for most of the year, this was a fairly easy promise to keep.
Flight Free UK is now rebooting its campaign and looking for more climate-conscious travellers to shun the skies next year when airlines will be desperate to fire up the jets, and people, quite understandably, will be gagging to get away and put the infernal misery of Covid behind them.
For all the promise of battery-powered planes and hydrogen jets, aviation remains an obvious stumbling block in the race to net zero, and it is unclear how the UK will slash emissions by 68 per cent in the next decade – as Boris promised yesterday – while airlines rebound from the biggest disaster to have befallen them. The two seem incompatible.
This begs an obvious and, on these pages, deeply unpopular question: should we penalise frequent flyers? According to research, just one per cent of the population belches out half the world’s aviation emissions, while the rest of us watch our ice creams melt on Bournemouth beach. I suppose at least they’re bringing the hot weather home with them. In this era of “levelling up”, surely frequent flyer programmes must be jettisoned?
I’m aware, of course, about the flaws in my own policy. The pandemic has given me ample time to reflect on the one in ten jobs supported globally by tourism, many of which would disappear if we all stayed grounded, including some conservation jobs in ecologically sensitive parts of the world, where wild things are worth more alive than dead because of tourism. And how I miss people; people who live plane rides away from me, including my brother in Canada, who is the only person I will get on a plane for, the one loophole in my radical policy.
What I can say is that I don’t miss flying. Not yet. In fact, since my wife and I decided to stay grounded, our trips have become more adventurous, not less. Like last year’s cycle trip up the Dutch coast. Straddling our three-speed, sit-up-and-beg bikes, we rode lazily through tulip fields and sand dunes for two weeks in the cycle-mad Netherlands. Joining the dots between The Hague, Haarlem and Alkmaar – a gorgeous, canalised city that almost nobody’s heard of – we made it all the way to Texel, one of the Wadden Islands, where vast, powdery beaches are another European secret. At the end of the trip we discovered there had in fact been three of us on the journey: my wife was pregnant.
We even did our honeymoon by train, travelling via Paris to La Rochelle, and across the water to Ile de Re, with its winsome fishing villages, sprawling beaches and shimmering salt flats. We also went Interrailing, following a similar route to the one we took as students. We broke up not long after that trip, actually, and didn’t rekindle our romance for another eight years. We can laugh about all that now – and we did, as we reminisced about our demented teenage love on the train to Berlin.
There would have been no such reminiscing on the plane; no landmarks or strangely-named, middle-of-nowhere stations to trigger our faded memories. In fact, there’s every chance we wouldn’t have been sat together on the plane; a privilege you have to pay for now on many airlines (I’d have coughed up, obviously).
Quitting flying obviously rules out the Serengeti and Rio and Tokyo, and lots of other places, which we're sad about. But by the time we become too aware of our clipped wings, maybe some airlines will have rolled out their long-awaited battery or hydrogen-powered planes – a milestone that’s likely to be hastened if more people shun the skies. Until then, Europe is our playground.