Up in the air!

1st July 2011 by

Eluned is travelling to India to volunteer with Performers without Borders. After a month of train travelling and many months of journey planning, Eluned finds herself aboard a plane for the final leg of her journey.

On the plane
As we sit on the runway at Tashkent airport, I look around at the other passengers settling into their seats. Most of them look bored and non-plussed. When we eventually set off, I strain and wriggle in my seat, trying to get a look out of the window from where I´m sitting in the centre aisle. I´m puzzled to see that everyone else is reading magazines, staring at the seat in front of them, or plugging in their headphones and falling asleep.

No one seems to be in the least bit amazed about the fact that we will soon be forging our way through the atmosphere, travelling thousands of feet above the Earth. In fact, the only person who seems remotely as excited as me is the toddler bouncing up and down on their seat in front! The plane tips into the air and my head and stomach fly away momentarily before I rise up to meet them.

It seems a strange place for our society to have reached, and it strikes me as quite sad, where something really quite miraculous is – at least for the richest fraction of the world – taken as commonplace and boring. Part of my problem with this type of transport is that people do it without thinking twice, either about how amazing it is, or about the big impact it will have. Not only that, but people seem to have forgotten the fascination with not just the destination, but the journey. For me, the train ride from London to Tashkent itself was every bit as exciting and as memorable an experience as each country I stepped out into. It was kind of like meeting new friends in a cosy cinema to watch a live documentary of the world going by.

What’s the problem with flying?
Air travel can be uniquely harmful, because it releases gases directly into the upper atmosphere. It is one of the most significant ways a single person can contribute to climate change.

There are three gases emitted by aircraft which contribute to global warming: water vapour, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The combined effect of the gases on global warming can be 2-5 times as bad as carbon dioxide alone. Because they are released high into the atmosphere, they do far more damage than they would on the ground.

To put it in context, on a return trip from the UK to New Zealand you would add approximately 12 tonnes of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, more than the average British person emits in a whole year. If you flew from London to Paris your emissions would be 244kg of CO2 – to go by train would produce 91% less!

In other words, in a single plane trip you could contribute more to global warming than the total of all your other activities in a whole year. Even if you do all you can to reduce your “carbon footprint” (the amount of carbon emissions you produce) in other areas of your lifestyle, and are careful about the way you choose to eat, power and heat your home, consume and dispose of goods, making a flight can quite easily counteract all of it – just like that.

The big C.C.
It can be hard to make the idea of climate change real, to think how what I am/ you are doing every day, now, relates to the climate of the whole world. But what it means is very real, and can be really quite scary.

For me, there are several reasons why I wanted to try travel to India and back overland. Firstly, because by flying I would contribute way more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere than I am comfortable with. I try to do what I can to live in a way which doesn´t harm other people or the world around us. For me, flying to India would undermine a lot of the work I would be doing once I got there. It is all the more pertinent because I am travelling to a developing country. Whilst the richest 7% of the global population (which includes the British) create 50% of global carbon emissions – as well as making the majority of flights – it is the developing world which will be the most vulnerable to climate change. It has been estimated by the UK Department of International Development that climate change will cancel the benefits of western aid and debt relief.
Over all, flying to India and back would produce approximately 5 tonnes of CO2, more than it takes to heat a  UK house for an entire year. The same trip taken directly by train would produce just over 1 tonne of CO2.

Because of bureaucratic obstacles, a tight timetable and safety concerns, sadly I chose to fly part of the way on the outward trip. I therefore estimate my carbon output (including a return journey, hopefully all overland but the long way round) to be 1.7 tonnes of CO2. The carbon saving I will make by traveling this way is therefore in the region of 3.3. tonnes (I would really like to make a comparison between this and other activities to make it more real and show how much it really is, so if anyone has any suggestions of where I can find something like this, please get in touch!!).

I also want to travel overland because – wow, what an experience! Already, I have taken in so much more of the landscape, and made so many more real connections with people than I would by sitting in an air conditioned container making jet trails over their heads. For me travel is not just about a single place to go to and come back from, but about the journey getting there. I want to make the most of the opportunity to discover more about the world, but to do it without causing too much damage. (Also, as I discovered during this flight, although I may love being above the clouds and appreciate the miracle of flying, the whole package of aviation, from the arduous check in, the tedium of sterile airports to the hours without a view for those without window seats can be distinctly boring).

Another Way is Possible
Finally, I wanted to attempt this trip overland because I genuinely believe that lower-carbon travel is a much better way forward than sitting comfortably and watching business as usual mess up things for myself and for people that I love and care about. I really hope that in doing it, maybe someone else´s eyes will be opened to the possibilities, and that a few more minds will become aware of how much difference a flight can make.

If it seems like things are unlikely to change, just consider that only 50 years ago, there were no commercial airlines. Things do change. Internet and global communications make planning overland travel a whole lot more straightforward. Within Europe, efficient train connections make overland travel a very viable option, whilst outside of Europe train cheaper train prices can make long journeys less pricey than you might think. Websites like www.seat61.com make planning a lot more easy, whilst a new system to be released soon on www.loco2.co.uk aims to facilitate train booking for journeys in Europe – and to find the cheapest routes. It would make me so happy to know that my trip and this blog had inspired someone to take on the adventure of riding overland, instead of flying.

Before making your next flight, think about its impact. Ask yourself, “hang on, do I have to take this flight? Or does it just seem more convenient? What about doing things differently?”. It is your choice, and there are alternatives – alternatives that can be really amazing! I hope that reading this blog might inspire you to stop and reconsider. Above all, I have to say, there´s nothing quite like a good long train ride =:0).

Trains vs. planes

18th January 2011 by

The industrial-age old debate goes on and on, although the proposed expansion of Heathrow Airport has been withdrawn (and the village of Sipson saved with it) train travel in the UK is the most expensive in Europe, while airlines continue to fly on tax free fuel. Luckily the Campaign for Better Transport are on hand to explode a few common myths about flying.

Myth No.1: Passenger jets are just 2% of global CO2 emissions.
In the late 1990s aviation accounted for 2% of global CO2 emissions, since then there has been a huge expansion of airports and short-haul flights. CO2 isn’t the only greenhouse gas emitted by flying and those effects are magnified at high altitude (to work out the full greenhouse impact of a flight multiply its CO2 emissions by around 2.7). It’s also worth remembering that most of the world isn’t flying. The British population, on the other hand, takes more flights per capita than any other country in the world (and aviation makes up 13% of the UK’s climate impact).

Myth No.2: Cheap flights are helping poorer people to fly for the first time
Low-skilled people and those on benefits take 6% of flights (despite making up 25% of the population), meanwhile the wealthiest 25% of the population take almost half of all flights. While air travel has been getting progressively cheaper over the last decade, the cost of bus travel (the most common mode of public transport for the poorest 25% of the population) has increased by 24% in real terms.

Myth No.3: We can expand airports and tackle climate change
Not according to the UK’s top climate scientists we can’t. The Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research predicts that the UK’s aviation emissions alone could exceed the government’s target for the country’s entire output of greenhouse gases in 2050 by up to 134%.


Search Blog

Get Social