More and more people are giving up flying to save the environment

As borders reopen, more and more people are wondering if their pre-pandemic travel habits are still sustainable. Kerry Sunderland speaks to three New Zealanders who have pledged to avoid flying whenever possible.

My Uncle and Aunt from Canberra recently informed me that they are traveling to New Zealand for a holiday later this year and are keen to visit me during their stay in Nelson. They are 92 and 88 respectively. It is amazing that they are still traveling at their age.

My first reaction was to hope I had some of their “Intrepid Senior Journey” genes, but then I remembered: If I keep flying like there’s no tomorrow, the planet will probably be uninhabitable by the time I am Your age.

Aviation is a relatively small industry, but before the pandemic, it accounted for four to nine percent of the total impact of climate change on human activities, according to the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation. This has had a disproportionately large – but often invisible – impact on the climate system.

Today, according to FlightAware, there are between 7,782 and 8,755 commercial aircraft in the air at any given time. While this is 10-20% fewer aircraft than pre-Covid, the airline industry is slowly getting closer to ‘business as usual’.

As Air New Zealand welcomed more than 4,000 customers on April 13, the day border restrictions between Australia and New Zealand were lifted, it declared it was “the day New Zealand has been waiting for”. But that wasn’t the case for everyone.

I’m not the only one who realized before Covid that cheap fares literally cost us the world. There are a growing number of New Zealanders who continue to question the propensity to hop on a plane just because we can.

Ange Palmer is co-producing the 2013 documentary 2 degrees, which examines the dismal failure of the UN climate negotiation process in Copenhagen in 2009 and follows a bold community campaign for a solar thermal power plant in South Australia. Essentially, it’s a documentary that reassures us that we all have a part to play in finding a solution to climate change. When I attended the premiere in New Zealand, I first thought about my own carbon footprint and the impact my many overseas and domestic flights have on the planet.

In one of the bonus features on the DVD, Palmer implores viewers to reconsider our need to travel by air and promises to avoid flying whenever possible.

Like Palmer, Dunedin-based writer Emma Neale avoids flying whenever she can. Since returning to New Zealand 20 years ago, Neale has only taken two trips abroad, both to Australia. Although she has occasionally flown domestically for work, she tries to avoid doing so whenever she can and often politely declines travel or asks to attend online rather than in person.

Dunedin-based writer Emma Neale (Photo: Caroline Davies via RNZ)

When invited to participate in the 2019 Nelson Arts Festival, Neale agreed that she would only do so if she could travel overland. She described the journey, which included three separate bus journeys and took about 13.5 hours each way, as a “mega-marathon” spread over two days of travel – six hours from Dunedin to Christchurch, then about 7.5 hours to Nelson .

For someone with a fertile imagination, bus travel can have its perks. “There were some fabulous aspects to traveling this way: so many sights and sounds along the way – I collected a lot of comic scenes and poetic imagery,” says Neale.

It wasn’t until a quarter of her way there that she began to see things: A concrete truck was an elephant; firs were witch trunks, then an elegant corps de ballet; the gorse and lupine were masses of scrambled eggs. “At one point, trying to stick to what the bus driver was saying was like trying to follow the doctor’s voice while he was under anesthesia.”

Marlborough resident Bill McEwan has also pledged to avoid flying. Reading by Bill McKibben The end of nature 20 years ago he first drew attention to “the serious crisis we are in”. Then Palmer’s doko, along with their commitment not to fly at all domestically, inspired McEwan, then 70, to camp out with his then 33-year-old son at the band’s rotunda in central Blenheim. Both fasted for a week to draw attention to their civil lawsuit. It wasn’t a protest, he says, but a “Karanga”; a call to his local community to start conversations about their impact on the environment. It was the birth of the Climate Karanga Marlborough movement.

Marlborough climate change activist Bill McEwan. (Photo: Chloe Ranford/LDR via RNZ)

McEwan was the first person to introduce me to the concept of “love miles,” a term first coined by British writer George Monbiot to describe the distance traveled to visit friends, partners, and relatives .

He says he’s only taken two plane trips in the past seven years – one to meet his daughter’s partner in Queenstown and one across Cook Strait to visit his dying aunt.

He used to hitchhike but says at 77 he’s too old for it now. He still takes the ferry frequently and finds other ways to get around, but this comes with many inconveniences. Like Neale, McEwan laments the South Island’s lack of long-distance public transportation.

Like Palmer, Neale, and McEwan, I made a promise to myself many years ago not to fly unless it was “essential travel.” But after moving to New Zealand in late 2012, I flew home to Australia about twice a year to visit family and friends and for work. I haven’t been very successful in keeping my promise. Flights kept getting cheaper, which made it easier, but the sense of uneasiness grew inside me — until the pandemic hit.

When Covid-19 grounded planes around the world for the first time, I welcomed the “Big Recess”. The earth seemed to take a deep breath. I was happy.

The start of the first lockdown also meant the end of my many Trans-Tasman trips each year and the occasional vacation in Asia and the Pacific. Having already felt guilty about the environmental impact of my trip, I was relieved that the choice had been taken away from me.

Neale also: “I felt this weird relief. It took the moral decision out of my hands.”

But now that the borders are open again, I feel conflicted again. Can I justify traveling to Australia again this year when it comes to legitimate love miles?

Silhouette of a person standing as the passenger jet takes off into the sunset
(Photo: TravelCouples via Getty)

Neale says she allots herself a small quota of love miles, too, but suggests, “If you’re going, go longer.”

McEwan still believes there’s still such a thing as “valid flying,” which encompasses diplomacy, important deals, and love miles: “Keeping kinship alive is important.”

I also recently met with Palmer, who now lives off the grid in Baton Valley, where she hosts educational retreats and grows her own vegetables. Her only daughter and grandson live in Melbourne. I ask her what she thinks of air travel now.

Palmer says she recently checked the impact of her domestic travel using a carbon calculator. “I chose not to fly domestically for many years, but if you compare the CO2 emissions of driving solo from the top of the South Island to Auckland, it’s about the same. If I share the car with someone, that’s a different story.”

On her final trip to her father’s, Palmer carpooled with her sister as they drove north and then, to get home, took the bus from Napier to Wellington, took the ferry across the Cook Strait, and then on their own from Picton to drove home. “Normally I would hitchhike on both islands, but in times of Covid it wasn’t that easy.”

Palmer still struggles with flying, even as she racks up love miles. “But am I willing to never see my daughter and grandson again? That is the love mile paradox.”

Air New Zealand recently announced a “roadmap”. to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, which includes the gradual use of sustainable aviation fuel, the introduction of zero-emission aircraft (including hydrogen-powered aircraft), the replacement of their fleet and “improvements in operational efficiencies”.

The David Suzuki Foundation warns that by 2050, a quarter of all emissions could come from flying if we don’t make radical changes.

McEwan isn’t convinced that technology will be the solution. He believes Air New Zealand’s plan doesn’t get to the heart of the problem.

“Biofuels and technologies as they are proposed are designed to support the status quo, which will be fatal to the planet,” says McEwan. “Energy dissent is in demand. We all need to use less energy very quickly. We must fight ‘afluenza’, reduce overconsumption and change the status quo. I don’t want to appear like a Luddite, but I care about the consequences. We only have to operate about a tenth of the flights that we currently operate.”

For me, my saving grace might be that my husband has a fear of flying, which could (mostly) keep me grounded anyway. But I’m not sure I have the stamina for our third round trip this year from Motueka to Invercargill for his mother’s 80th birthday in July. Maybe I just have to fly.