The last time I flew was September 4th, 2021, to get to college for the start of my senior year. That’s 479 days ago.
That fall, I made the decision to stop flying for at least one year. Why? Because flying airplanes emits emits a massive amount of greenhouse gases. I’d been vaguely aware for a while, but my binge on Joshua Spodek’s blog posts helped give me the spark to commit. We can say people should fly less all we want, but if we don’t ourselves fly less, it’s mainly lip service.
To estimate my avoided emissions, I did a little research and made this graph. As you can see, avoiding the 3 flights I might have otherwise taken is roughly equivalent (by this metric) to the combined annual impact of: not having a fridge, not driving 15 miles to and from work daily, composting all my food scraps, not using a clothes dryer, and not using plastic bags.
Let’s not forget the meaning behind the string of letters, “kg CO2e”: every additional puff of greenhouse gases increases the severity of centuries of climate change that will harm people and the planet. I acknowledge also that this metric isn’t all-encompassing of the effects of various activities, but it’s still worth ballparking for sure, given how clear the science is on GHGs and climate change.
So what was it like to not fly? Completely painless. It didn’t feel like an inconvenience. I am happy with my decision, and have no plans to resume flying again, and I recommend it very much. In pledging to not fly, I’m now in the company of many climate thinkers that I respect very much, like scientist and activist Peter Kalmus.
Here are all the flights I didn’t take, and what I did instead.
- Flying home: I could have visited home during the academic breaks: Thanksgiving, Winter, and Spring. But I didn’t. I spent time with my parents, who I love very much, by calling and video-calling them instead, and I don’t feel distress from the lack of in-person contact.
- Conference: There was a conference in Boston I could have flown to from New York. It seems obvious to me now that the train is far more convenient for such a short trip, but some of my peers flew (costs were compensated either way). I took the train.
- Tourism: I could have flown for leisure trips during Winter Break, Spring Break, or after graduation. But I didn’t. I turned down an international trip with a friend. Instead, I enjoyed my last year in NYC, took the train north to some cute towns, and rode a bus to Maine for my postgrad trip. Sure, being in France or whatever could be fun. But I have so many other fun things to do, such that I don’t even have time to get to them all.
- Work trips: It’s typical for my company to send employees between our CA and MA locations. It’s not required for me, but it’s an option I have. Pretty much all my immediate colleagues have flown a cross-country work trip in the past half-year. I declined, and it’s completely fine.
- Moving states: The biggest potential inconvenience I anticipated was the possibility that I’d choose a job in a much farther away state and have to move there. I loosely planned to have an epic Amtrak cross-country trip (which I’m lucky to be able to afford if need be) if I chose a job in, say, Colorado, but my top contenders ended up being far closer. I moved via train.
Not only has not flying subtracted an activity from my life, it’s also added things!
- I got more experience at taking the bus and train, so I’m better at using them now.
- I took the train more than I would have otherwise, and discovered that I enjoy it a lot more than planes, even though it takes longer.
- I’ve gotten interested in bike touring and am building up for some very exciting trips that I expect to be hugely enriching to my life. I may have never gotten interested if I hadn’t stopped flying.
- I’ve been able to connect with other people more about our environmental motivations when the topic of why I’m not flying comes up, which it has several times.
- I’ve gotten more excited about slow travel and how much there is to discover in my region and in the U.S.
- I feel satisfaction that I set a goal based on my morals, achieved it, and continue to achieve it.
- I saved money.
Here are some more questions that you might have.
bUt thE PLanE waS GOinG To fLY aNywaY
Airlines decide to fly planes because people decide to ride them. I’m not going to stop the plane like Superman, but neither are all flights inevitable. This also relates to the similar question:
You not flying isn’t going to “save the planet”, so why bother? Life is short, travel and convenience is worth it.
Sorry to repeat a tired response, but nothing any one person does is going to singlehandedly “save the planet”. Everyone knows that. So what? My desire to do good things doesn’t come from a delusion of omnipotence. It comes from a desire to do good things, and I am happy with my decision.
I realize that it takes a little more abstract thinking to see the value in decisions that engage with enormous entities like airlines, but such is the challenge of the modern age.
So are you really never flying again?
I don’t know. I can see myself making an exception for a family emergency, or a literal once-in-a-lifetime trip (not the dozens of “once-in-a-lifetime” trips that some people rack up), or if some other exceptionally important thing that I can’t imagine right now came up. But I expect that I will fly very little for the rest of my life, and make my occasional longer-haul trips via train, bike, bus, carpool, or some combination.
You’re only able to abstain from flying because you’re privileged.
But what about emissions from trains/cars/bikes?
It’s a lot less, in the annual quantities that I use them. But yes, there are still emissions and I consider them when I make plans.
Can’t we just buy carbon offsets for like ten bucks?
Carbon offsets are not truly guaranteed, and the whole emissions market is still very young. For example, can anyone really promise that a planted tree or forest will grow to maturity and lives for tens or even hundreds of years? No (wildfires don’t care about contracts). Can we know for sure that a distant parcel of forest would have been cut down if some funds had not been furnished? No. But that is the inherent promise of a carbon offset: that it will take CO2 out of the atmosphere for good. But the certainty is asymmetric.
Sure, buying an offset with your flight is probably better than not, but what’s even better is not flying and buying that offset. Now, are offsets the best sink for all your donations? Probably not, but that’s a different question for a different day.
Wouldn’t you be happier if you gave yourself a break and saw your parents more often and went to Europe and whatnot?
I care too much about the world to be willfully ignorant of my effects on it, and the guilt I’d feel flying willy-nilly could very well negate my enjoyment of the destinations. All I know is that I always was and continue to be happy with my decision to not fly. Believe it or not.
Thanks for reading! Please feel free to reach out to me with any other questions, or to share your experiences. To learn more, I recommend FlightFree.org and the chapter “Slow Travel” from Being the Change by Peter Kalmus. To calculate emissions, I used atmosfair.