A GOOD few years ago, I had a chat with a Scottish conservationist as he was about to head off on holiday to the other side of the world. Was he concerned about his climate emissions from flying long haul? I asked. “I only fly long haul once a year,” he replied.

Flying has become so ordinary that many of us – even the environmentally conscious – sometimes overlook the adverse impact it has on the climate. But given the advanced state of global heating, we can’t do that any more. Research by the German organisation Atmosfair shows that a return trip from London to New York generates nearly a tonne of CO2 per passenger – more than the emissions produced in an entire year by the average person in most sub-Saharan African countries. Flying long distance and flying frequently turns people into super-emitters.

The pandemic has given us an unexpected opportunity for much-needed change, by smashing the travel norms we’ve become accustomed to.

There’s been an unexpected hiatus in plane travel but how many of us can truly say our lives have been blighted as a result?

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Now’s the chance for companies to make video-conferencing the standard so people fly for work only in exceptional circumstances. Now’s the chance to rethink taxes on plane travel so that alternatives become more attractive. And for frequent fliers, now’s the chance to remember how much more enjoyable flying is when you do it less.

Flying is wonderful. True, on a bad day it can feel like live animal transport, but it can also be the most extraordinary delight. Flying out of Dar es Salaam once, I saw the peak of Kilimanjaro rising above the clouds like an enchanted kingdom. Grown adults were “oh-ing: and “ah-ing”.

As you gaze down at a world in miniature, it’s thrilling to think that only a tiny proportion of people in human history have seen the earth this way. If Mary Queen of Scots, Genghis Khan and Julius Caesar could have time-travelled, they would have behaved like awestruck children on the 14.25 Easyjet flight from Luton to Glasgow.

Cheap flights have made travel accessible to more people than ever before and aviation has brought the world closer together, helping break down national and cultural boundaries.

We can’t uninvent aviation, nor would we ever want to.

But we can’t ignore its consequences either. Flying is responsible for nearly three per cent of human-induced carbon emissions, which might not sound like much until you realise what a small proportion of humans actually fly.


It’s a problem mainly generated by rich countries, and mainly wealthy people within them. A study in the science journal Global Environmental Change found that only 11 per cent of humans took a flight in 2018 and just four per cent flew abroad. Strikingly, one per cent of the world’s population caused half of aviation emissions because they flew so often.

They are the business travellers who go to Frankfurt one week and India the next. They are the professionals who take a mini-break in Barcelona one month and pop to Latvia on a stag weekend the next. They are the holiday-makers who reach far-off destinations by flying via several hubs (the most polluting way to fly long distance, since take-off and landing uses the most fuel). A study by climate campaign group Possible found that 15 per cent of people take 70 per cent of flights in the UK. Frequent fliers have T-rex sized carbon footprints while average people in poor and middle-income countries tread like sparrows.

The pandemic aside, the aviation sector has been growing. Between 2013 and 2018 it grew by 32 per cent, impervious to the urgency of the climate emergency. Unchecked, it could triple in size by 2050.

But here’s the thing: it should be one of the most straightforward climate harms to reduce. We don’t have to stop flying, we can just fly less.

So why don’t we? Because we’re actually incentivised to fly.

Comparing return rail and air fares from Glasgow to London mid week, the fare difference is around £70 in favour of flying.

A Which? investigation found the train was on average 49 per cent more costly than the plane on 10 popular holiday routes in the UK.

This is hardly surprising when you look at it. Astonishingly, jet fuel is tax-free. The UK government has given airlines bailouts during the pandemic with no environmental conditions attached, unlike France and Austria where airlines may no longer compete with trains on short journeys. The UK government even wants to cut Air Passenger Duty (APD) for domestic flights, which Greenpeace condemns for continuing the trend of “the higher the carbon, the lower the tax”.

The EU is introducing a tax on jet fuel for flights within the EU. If Mr Johnson truly wants to show leadership at COP26, he should do the same and push hard for an international agreement to end aviation fuel tax exemptions.

The top fifth of earners currently fly five times more than the poorest fifth. A Frequent Flier Levy – giving each person a tax-free return flight each year so that the annual holiday is unaffected, but taxing people ever more for each additional flight – would significantly reduce the number of flights taken and be a progressive replacement for APD.

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Private companies should be setting limits on employee flights, requiring video-conferencing or train travel whenever possible. Some are already doing it.

And we need to support the development of more sustainable aviation technology, though without relying on it to cut emissions until it can be used at scale.

Until then, cutting back on flights is the only way to drive down emissions.

It’s wealthier people, as the most frequent fliers, who would see the biggest change, but would it really be such a sacrifice? Middle class Scots have long had the habit of driving south to the Channel ferry, car laden with kids and tent, to spend a fortnight on the continent. Thanks to wonder of Eurostar, you can grab breakfast in Scotland, morning coffee at St Pancras, lunch in Lille and dinner in Lyon.

Flying is wonderful, but the alternatives can be just as fun.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.