Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyMay 3, 2022

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

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

As borders reopen, a growing number of people are questioning if their pre-pandemic travel habits are still sustainable. Kerry Sunderland speaks to three New Zealanders who’ve committed to avoid flying whenever possible.

My Canberra-based uncle and aunt recently sent word that they are heading 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’s amazing they’re still travelling at their age.

My initial response was to hope that I’ve got some of their “intrepid elderly travel” genes, but then I remembered: if I keep flying as if there’s no tomorrow, the planet probably won’t be habitable by the time I’m their age.

Aviation is a relatively small industry, but pre-pandemic it accounted for four to nine per cent of the total climate change impact of human activity, according to the Vancouver-based David Suzuki Foundation. This resulted in a disproportionately large – but often invisible – impact on the climate system. 

These days, according to FlightAware, there are somewhere between 7,782 and 8,755 commercial planes in the air at any given time. While this is 10% to 20% fewer aircraft than pre-Covid days, the aviation industry is inching closer to “business as usual”.

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

I’m not the only one who realised, pre-Covid, that cheap fares were literally costing us the earth. There are a growing number of New Zealanders who continue to question the inclination to jump on a plane just because we can.

Ange Palmer is co-producer of the 2013 documentary 2 Degrees, which examines the abysmal failure of the UN climate negotiation process in Copenhagen in 2009 and follows a courageous community campaign for a solar thermal power plant in South Australia. In essence, it’s a documentary that assures us that we all have a part to play in finding a solution to climate change. Attending the New Zealand premiere first got me thinking about my own carbon footprint and the impact my many overseas and domestic flights was having on the planet.

In one of the bonus features on the DVD, Palmer implores viewers to reconsider our need to travel by air and pledges not to fly whenever possible. 

Like Palmer, Dunedin-based writer Emma Neale also avoids flying whenever she can. Since moving back to New Zealand 20 years ago, after a stint living in the United Kingdom, Neale has only undertaken two overseas journeys, both to Australia. While she has occasionally flown domestically for work, she tries to avoid it whenever she can, often politely declining to travel or asking to participate online instead of in person. 

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

When invited to take part in the 2019 Nelson Arts Festival, Neale agreed to do so only if she could travel overland. She described the journey, which involved three separate bus rides and took roughly 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 benefits. “There were some fabulous aspects of travelling this way: so many sights and sounds en route – I collected lots of comic scenes and poetic imagery,” says Neale.

Only a quarter of the way into her outbound trip, she started to see things: a concrete truck was an elephant; fir trees were tribes of witches, then an elegant corps de ballet; the gorse and lupin were masses of scrambled eggs. “At one point, trying to hold on to what the bus driver was saying was like trying to follow the doctor’s voice while going under anaesthetic.”

Marlborough-based Bill McEwan has also made a commitment to avoid flying. Reading Bill McKibben’s The End of Nature 20 years ago first alerted him to “the grave crisis we are facing”. Then Palmer’s doco, along with her commitment not to fly at all domestically, inspired McEwan, then 70, to camp out in the band rotunda in central Blenheim with his then 33-year-old son. They both fasted for a week to call attention to their civil action. It wasn’t a protest, he says, but a “karanga”; a call for his local community to start having conversations about their impact on the environment. It gave birth to the Climate Karanga Marlborough movement.

Marlborough climate change campaigner 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 one must travel to visit friends and partners and relatives. 

He says he has embarked on only two journeys by air in the past seven years – one to meet his daughter’s partner in Queenstown and one across the Cook Strait to visit his dying aunt.

He used to hitchhike, but says at 77 he’s now getting too old for that. He still frequently takes the ferry and finds other ways to get around, but it involves a lot of inconvenience. Like Neale, McEwan bemoans the lack of intercity public transport in the South Island.

Like Palmer, Neale and McEwan, I also made a promise to myself many years ago not to fly unless it was “essential travel”. But after moving to New Zealand at the end of 2012, I found myself flying home to Australia about twice a year to visit family and friends and for work; I wasn’t very successful at keeping my promise. Flights kept getting cheaper, which made it easier, but the feeling of disquiet grew inside me – until the pandemic arrived.

When Covid-19 first grounded planes around the world, I welcomed the “Great Pause”. The earth seemed to let out a deep breath. I rejoiced.

The beginning of the first lockdown also signalled the end of my many trans-Tasman trips every year, and the occasional holiday in Asia and the Pacific. Since I’d already been feeling guilty about the impact my travel was having on the environment, I was relieved the choice had been taken away from me. 

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

Yet now that borders have re-opened, I feel conflicted all over again. Can I justify making a trip back to Australia this year if it qualifies as legitimate love miles?

Silhouette of person standing watching passenger jet take off into sunset
(Photo: TravelCouples via Getty)

Neale says she also allocates herself a small allowance of love miles, but suggests: “If you do go, go for longer.”

McEwan still believes there is still such a thing as “valid flying”, which includes diplomacy, essential business and love miles: “It’s important to keep kinship alive.”

I also recently caught up with Palmer, who now lives completely off the grid up the Baton Valley, where she hosts educational retreats and grows her own vegetables. Her only daughter and grandson live in Melbourne. I ask her what her take is now on travelling by air.

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

On her last trip to visit her father, Palmer carpooled with her sister as they drove north and then, to get home, caught the bus from Napier to Wellington, the ferry over the Cook Strait, and then drove home alone from Picton. “Normally I would hitch, in both islands, but it hasn’t been so easy in the time of Covid.”

Palmer still feels conflicted about flying, even when she’s clocking up love miles. “But am I prepared to never see my daughter and grandson again? That’s the love mile paradox.”

Air New Zealand recently announced a “roadmap” to reach net zero emissions by 2050, which includes phasing in the use of sustainable aviation fuel, introducing zero emissions aircraft (including hydrogen-powered planes), replacing its fleet and “improvements in operational efficiencies”.

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

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

“Biofuels and technology like they’re suggesting are primed to support the status quo, which will be fatal for the planet,” McEwan says. “Energy descent is what’s required. We all need to use less energy, very quickly. We need to tackle ‘affluenza’, reduce overconsumption, and change the status quo. I don’t want to appear to be a luddite, but I care about the consequences. We need to be doing only about a tenth of the flying we’re currently doing.”

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

Keep going!