It has taken Roger Tyers four days to reach Moscow by train from Kiev. His destination is Beijing: a trip that will take 14 days, with a couple of overnight stops along the way. Tyers, an environmental sociologist at the University of Southampton, is on his way to China to research attitudes to the environment, the climate emergency and personal responsibility.
“Given that, I thought it would be somewhat hypocritical of me to fly,” he says over Skype from his hostel room. It has been months in the planning — he had to convince his bosses to give him a month off to travel to and from China. Has it been a pain? “It definitely has. It’s a matter of getting your train schedule in line with your visa requirements. I didn’t realise I needed a visa to travel through Mongolia, even though I’m not stopping there. There have been moments when I’ve been close to giving up and either cancelling the whole trip or just booking a flight.” But he is glad he has stuck with it, he says. “I have to prove it is possible.”
The no-fly movement is a small but growing community of people who are drastically reducing the number of flights they take, or giving up air travel altogether. Many campaigners say they feel flying is about to receive the same attention as shunning plastic or eating less meat because of its 2 per cent contribution to global carbon emissions, predicted to grow to as much as 16 per cent by 2050.
In Sweden, where the movement has taken off, a new term has emerged: flygskam, meaning “flight shame”. Siân Berry, the co-leader of the Green party, has called on people to take no more than one flight a year and suggested a tax should be imposed on further journeys. Berry hasn’t flown since 2005. The climate activist Greta Thunberg hasn’t flown since 2015; she did her European tour in April by train. In January, she attended the World Economic Forum at Davos in Switzerland, travelling 32 hours each way by rail, while a record number of private jets — about 1,500 — brought the rich and powerful attendees.
I decided that my new year resolution last year would be to start asking some inconvenient questions. I realised that most people weren’t aware of the impact from flying and how huge it is.
It is becoming harder to defend alleged hypocrisy, however well-meaning. The actor Emma Thompson was criticised for flying from Los Angeles to support the Extinction Rebellion protest in London, not only by the usual naysayers eager to point out double standards, but also by environmental campaigners. “She could just as easily have paid for a billboard poster in Piccadilly and got her message across there,” said Kevin Anderson, a climate scientist who hasn’t flown since 2004, on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. The issue has been significant among environmental scientists for years; the Flying Less campaign, aimed at academia, has been running since 2015.
Paul Chatterton, a professor of urban futures at the University of Leeds, also hasn’t flown since 2004. “I think every academic has to justify why they are flying to that particular ‘must-go’ conference. If we have something really important to say, say it in a different way.” He travels to European conferences by train. “One of the privileges of being a middle-income professional — and this is a direct plea to other middle-income professionals — is that you can negotiate with your boss and you have a bit more money to get the train. I’m not talking about people who can’t afford to do that, because I know trains are more expensive.”
As for Chatterton’s no-fly family holidays, the best ones have been taking the ferry from Hull to Rotterdam and cycling around the Netherlands. “You travel light, you make it an adventure with your kids,” he says. “Who wants to sit in a departure lounge? You get the excitement of travelling through places, figuring out what the next journey is. I think we have to get back into the idea that travelling is special; it’s a privilege.”
Most flying is carried out by a small proportion of the population. Aled Jones, the director of the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University, says we have become used to the low-cost weekend flight abroad in a short space of time. “When I was growing up, and certainly for the generation before, flying on holiday was not something you expected to do,” he says. “By radically cutting down, we’re not going back to the dark ages; we’re going back to when people holidayed in the UK. It will be less of a sacrifice for a lot of people than we expect.” He admits that addressing “love miles” — flying to see family who live abroad — is “a very different challenge”.
Maja Rosén, who lives in Sweden and gave up flying in 2008, had always kept quiet when friends talked about flying abroad on holidays — until last year. “I thought: ‘How is it possible I’m more scared of destroying the mood than climate collapse?’ I decided that my new year resolution last year would be to start asking some inconvenient questions. I realised that most people weren’t aware of the impact from flying and how huge it is.”
She and a friend started a campaign, Flight-free 2019 (now Flight-free 2020), to encourage people to pledge not to fly. By the end of 2018, 15,000 Swedes had signed; by the end of this year, she thinks it will be 100,000. It has changed the conversation around flying in the country: passenger numbers dropped at Swedish airports in 2018, while a record number of people in the country took the train. “People don’t realise that what they do as an individual is so important because it affects those around them,” says Rosén. “If you keep flying, all your friends will as well. You contribute to the norm. But if you decide to give up flying or take a flight-free year, that makes others reflect. Change can happen fast as soon as enough people start acting. Before, people saw flying as an experience or something you do, it wasn’t in the category of consumption, but I think now people are starting to realise that by taking a flight they are a heavy consumer of fossil fuel.”
There is now a British arm of the campaign, run by the writer Anna Hughes, who last took a flight eight years ago. More than 1,000 people have pledged to have a flight-free year. Hughes likens it to the Veganuary campaign, by which people give up animal products for January to raise awareness of veganism and change behaviour. She has travelled to Ireland, Denmark and other European countries — and seen a lot of the UK. “There is nowhere I can think of that I want to go that I can’t get to by bike, train or boat. If I was going to go further, I would just take a long time to do it.”
The author Nicola Davies is taking long-haul flights for a couple of upcoming commitments, but after that she will radically rethink her flight consumption, she says. There will almost certainly be no more European flights; she has already travelled to the Balearic Islands in Spain by car. “We did the journey down to Barcelona in two days, then the ferry crossing is eight hours,” she says, adding that it requires a bit more planning than travelling by plane. “It’s much more exciting, much closer to the real skin of the planet than the feeling you get from going to an airport, popping into a metal tube and then popping out at some other point on the planet with no real grasp of the distance, habitat, people and cultures you’ve passed over on the way.
“I think this shift to no, or fewer, flights is an opportunity to redraft what travel truly means, rather than a sort of consumerist ticking of boxes. If we give up the idea of the weekend break in Budapest or the three days in Miami for a stag do, I think that’s probably helpful — for us as human beings, as well as for the planet.” There are people who are reminding us that it is possible to travel overland with young children. “We’ve gone to Italy by train, Spain, different parts of France,” says Linda Thomas, a fashion designer.
For the first couple of years, giving up flying felt like a loss, she says, but the train-travel website seat61.com has enabled them to plan more adventurous journeys. “We’ve had some really incredible wildlife experiences. There would be a feeling of guilt otherwise —— that you’re seeing something, but also contributing to its demise at the same time, when you’ve taken a long-haul flight to get somewhere. It doesn’t feel like a loss; it feels like we’ve gained new experiences.”
Wendy and her husband have cut down on flying in recent years and decided to stop altogether at the beginning of 2019. “We couldn’t really justify it any more. Something that was purely for fun didn’t feel enjoyable any more; it didn’t feel right.” They have had fantastic family holidays by train, starting with a trip to Chamonix in the French Alps with their six-month-old daughter, but Wendy says it has been hard not seeing her husband’s family, who live in Malaysia.
Cath Heinemeyer, a researcher and community artist who hasn’t flown for 19 years, says visiting family has been a challenge. “My family live in Northern Ireland, my husband’s family live in Germany and we live in York. We do see them, but we see them less frequently, for a longer time.” She admits they haven’t faced family commitments that would be simplified by flying. “Our parents are in reasonable health. Maybe it will get challenging if we’re suddenly called to support them in their later years. We would have to decide that on a case-by-case basis.”
It can be more expensive — “You need to get a bit savvy about booking” — and it requires research, she says. “We have had mishaps, where we’ve had tiny children and missed a train connection and had to find last-minute accommodation in some city.”
Heinemeyer felt a twinge of regret at missing her high school reunion in Canada, but otherwise not flying hasn’t felt like a sacrifice, she says. “I like the children to realise how far they’ve travelled and see how the landscape changes. It’s just a thing we’ve always worked around. Your journey becomes part of your holiday.”
Lewis McNeil, a project manager for the charity the Orchard Project, proved the viability of long-haul overland travel after he gave up flying in 2006. There was “a ‘letting go’ period akin to the end of a relationship, but things got exciting when I realised that one can still travel, and travel far, while creating a fraction of the emissions that air travel is responsible for”, he says.
He has gone by coach to many European destinations, finding the train too expensive if booked last-minute, but his most intrepid no-fly holiday was a nine-day cargo-ship journey from France to Trinidad in the Caribbean, booked through a specialist company, then on to Venezuela by boat. “The idea behind this is that you’re piggybacking on emissions that are already going to be emitted — that cargo ship, as unsustainable as it is with our crazy trade system, is going anyway. With flying, flights depend on demand.”
The journey was magical. “Watching dolphins and whales, seeing incredible starlit skies in the middle of the Atlantic, swimming in the little plunge pool, swotting up on Spanish, making friends with the Filipino crew and sharing music. It was pretty expensive, at €90 (£79) per person a day, but that included food and a lovely en suite room complete with a porthole and a writing desk.”
He returned from Colombia to the Netherlands. The key to flight-free travel, he says, is “seeing the journey as part of the adventure” — although travel pillows, eye masks, earplugs, snacks, books and a tablet with films downloaded all help. After Moscow, Tyers will get the Trans-Siberian railway to Irkutsk, then on to Beijing. “Not everybody can do it, I understand that,” he says. “Not everybody has the time, or bosses who are willing to let people take longer to get places. But for those who can — and I think a lot more people can than realise — flying less is good; it’s enriching.” He is pessimistic that people will change voluntarily to the degree needed. “But we’ll see. Often the cultural change comes first, then political change — and I do think there’s something in the air.”