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Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swede leading the global youth climate crusade, came to New York to speak at the September gathering of the U.N. General Assembly. She arrived from Europe by boat. Thunberg has pledged to never fly on an airplane because of carbon emissions, helping to create a flight shaming movement in Sweden and elsewhere. From Prince Harry to soccer star David Beckham to CEOs planning to attend Davos, people are being asked a tough question: Should we all stop flying?
It’s a reasonable inquiry. If climate change is an existential crisis — and I believe it is — shouldn’t we do everything we can to reduce our carbon footprints? And should businesses that have already committed to climate action lead the way, in part by slashing airplane travel?
The answer here is a definitive “maybe” that depends on a lot of factors. There are good reasons to keep flying — to connect humankind and enlist global cooperation, for instance, even in service of fighting climate change. No matter which way we intuitively lean, we as individuals and in business must make decisions like this consciously and with good data.
Air Travel Matters, But…
Let’s start with a couple of points of context. First, the anti-flying movement is not wrong: Flying takes up a big footprint, both per mile traveled and in total. A single round-trip flight across the U.S. produces about 2 tons of carbon dioxide per person, or roughly 10% of a typical U.S. citizen’s already large annual footprint. Air travel accounts for about 2% to 3% of global emissions, which is not small, and it’s growing fast: The International Air Transport Association projects the number of airline passengers to double over the next 20 years, to over 8 billion annually.
Second, for businesses, travel can be a significant part of a company’s operational footprint, particularly in the services sector (think banks, venture capitalists, law firms, consulting companies, and the like).
So, what do we do? Just stop? That may not be viable. The same goes for just taking other modes of transport, since cars and trains aren’t alternatives for long-haul and intercontinental flights.
The fly-or-no-fly question is the subject of raging debate. In a recent exchange in the climate Twittersphere (yes, that’s a thing), Genevieve Guenther, founder and director of EndClimateSilence.org, tweeted that climate movement leaders have to stop flying.
The climate movement is not going to be effective until its leaders stop flying. I completely believe that.
Information doesn’t change people’s politics.
Social signaling and new norms do. https://t.co/QntrS3Ri1D
— Dr. Genevieve Guenther (@DoctorVive) September 29, 2019
The replies to this tweet were fascinating. Author and clean tech thinker Ramez Naam pointed out that framing climate action mainly as sacrifice was self-defeating: “If the message we give people is ‘To address climate, everyone must stop flying,’ it’s going to be harder to get climate action, not easier.”
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Why I’ll Continue to Fly
I’ve come down in favor of continuing to fly, with some important caveats. Trust me, I’m incredibly concerned about my footprint, and in the past year, my consulting and speaking have taken me to Asia and South America multiple times. It’s not lost on me that I’m urging companies to treat climate change like an emergency while I’m flying 12,000 miles to share that message.
Here are the four main arguments I’ve seen from the climate community and others that support the decision to keep flying for work. (I believe making the choice about personal travel and vacations is another conversation.) I’ve also included some ideas on how businesses can do better to consciously reduce flying to only essential trips.
It’s efficient. There can be symbolic reasons to abstain, and Thunberg’s decision to sail for 15 days to reach the U.S. may make sense in the context of her speech. But on climate change in particular, we have a lot of work to do. Many people need to get around quickly, both for science (it’s hard to take Arctic ice core samples near home) and to reach the most people possible to advocate for change. In the Twitter exchange that followed Guenther’s post, well-known climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe put it succinctly: “I’m 100% convinced I can make more of a difference [flying] than not.”
I’m not, because I’m 100% convinced I can make more of a difference doing it than not. Please reconsider ?
— Prof. Katharine Hayhoe (@KHayhoe) September 29, 2019
How to do better: We should all lean into the efficiency point and do more with each trip. For example, when a mining company in Brazil asked me to speak to its board of about a dozen people, I asked my client to help me make the trip really count. They set up another meeting at an industry innovation center, where I spoke (for free) to dozens of people from a number of multinational mining companies operating in the region. All businesses should find ways to combine trips and pick locations for meetings that minimize the total distance traveled.
There’s more impact. We’re a face-to-face species. People working on climate change — and really all of us in business trying to make change happen — have to win hearts and minds. That’s hard to do on a screen, especially when you’re trying to connect on a human level with hundreds or thousands in a room at once. I’ve given presentations on high-quality big screens to reduce travel and cost, and while it’s not useless, it’s not the same. When we’re asking people to change their worldviews and dramatically shift how they live and do business, we sometimes need to look them in the eye.
How to do better: Even though being in person matters, it’s not always necessary. Two core dimensions to consider: how well the people gathering know one another and whether it’s an internal or external meeting. When I joined a new board for a U.K.-based organization, I flew to meet everyone. For the second quarterly meeting, I took part via Zoom. In larger companies, internal meetings offer the best opportunities to reduce. So go see clients and partners in person if it makes a difference or perhaps when meeting an internal team for the first time. But for many other meetings? Zoom, Skype, and other remote conferencing platforms are plenty good enough.
There are other drivers of carbon footprint. As scientist Jonathan Foley, executive director of climate research organization Project Drawdown, tweeted, “Why only flying? The same thing could be said for diets. Or using air conditioning. Or having inefficient lighting. Or driving an internal combustion engine?”
Why only flying?
The same thing could be said for diets. Or using air conditioning. Or having inefficient lighting. Or driving an internal combustion engine?
The obsession with flying is a little odd to me, when there are so many ways climate leaders can cut their emissions.
— Dr. Jonathan Foley (@GlobalEcoGuy) September 29, 2019
This is a fair point. I don’t find it as compelling when it comes to the choices we make on an individual level: I’ve avoided meat and poultry for more than 25 years, our house is ultraefficient and has solar panels, and we drive an electric vehicle now (after 13 years of driving only hybrids), but I’m under no illusion that all of that offsets how much I fly. But for organizations, perhaps those not in service sectors, progress in the other areas could help compensate for air travel.
How to do better: Even for service companies, their operational footprints — the parts that have to do with airline travel by employees — are likely dwarfed by the impact of what their businesses actually do. In other words, banks can have some effect on carbon emissions if they limit staff air travel, but they can have a major impact if they shift their lending, financing, and investments away from fossil fuels and toward the clean economy. That will reduce far more carbon than grounding their bankers. Or consider if consulting, legal, and marketing firms exclusively helped companies move toward truly sustainable models. Company leaders should map out the effects of their business across the value chain and then have some hard, heretical conversations about the purpose of the business. Is it helping to build a thriving world?
Eliminating flying is a distraction. The concern here is twofold. First, is this movement like the plastic straws thing — a nice small action, but with minimal impact on total plastic use? Granted, flying is much bigger. But the other part of the argument is that the focus on individual action and sacrifice has been a strategic, multi-decade effort on the part of the go-slow crowd on climate (mostly the fossil fuel industry and anti-environmental think tanks). They’ve told us to recycle more, eat differently, and so on, rather than question their larger actions or how the whole system works. Yes, the collective impact of small choices matter and send market signals. But climate change is the largest systems problem we’ve ever faced. We need big changes like policies that put a price on carbon and incentives for clean technologies to come into play even faster.
How to do better: To fuel action for change, we should enlist corporate buying power to shift how all suppliers, including airlines, move to lower-carbon methods of doing business. As Naam said in his tweeted response to Guenther, “The politically viable path is tech substitution. … Make the airline industry crank emissions down with a path to zero … to drive innovation.” In short, we should work to help the airline industry hit its low-carbon goals. That means pushing for policies that would reduce carbon (such as support for biofuels or short-haul electric planes), as well as those that would make trains more appealing (investment in high-speed rail and smarter city planning) or enhance telepresence tools (5G and broadband for all). Companies must recognize that we won’t effectively tackle climate change through individual or even corporate action alone.
These arguments are compelling and boil down to what one climate-related nongovernmental organization leader said to me: “Since flying is 3% of emissions, I’m OK with contributing to that if I’m working on reducing the other 97%.”
Speaking Face-to-Face Connects Us
I have one final, philosophical point. We face enormous, complicated challenges like climate change, water and resource shortages, and inequality. Unfortunately, right when we need global cooperation on species-threatening issues, we’re in a historic swing toward selfishness and nationalism. To fight that, we must understand one another — face-to-face. We need to see those we don’t normally run into, in part so we can feel one another’s humanity.
We all know how powerful online social networks are, but they’re not the same as being there in the presence of hopeful (or hostile) audiences. So like the flexitarian or reducetarian movements related to meat eating, we all should reduce our flying while fomenting larger changes in the system that we all take part in.
We have to do both.