The Misconceptions Around Leisure Travel’s Environmental Impact

On our chests the heavy weight of the climate crisis rests. We have begun to analyse our modern lifestyles as the wildfires blaze, with many wondering could they be at fault? One facet of our global lifestyles to have come under intense scrutiny in recent years is air travel. The Swedish ‘flygskam’ (flight shame) movement has had powerful effects on consumer decision making and made many skeptical of flying. But, within the vilification of all aviation, sight of the vital benefits that sustainable leisure travel brings is at risk of being lost. Here’s why you shouldn’t turn your back on international travel just yet.

Let’s talk about carbon

All forms of transport produce 24% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Aviation produces 11% of this, while passenger and freight road transport are responsible for 75%. In the context of all global GHG emissions, air travel (both commercial and cargo) produces between 2-3%. While a seemingly small percentage, aviation forms the largest portion of an individual’s carbon footprint. Looking at it from an individual viewpoint is important too, as this illuminates the vast inequality in CO2 production between a few frequent fliers, and a large portion of the world’s population who don’t fly at all.

In the US, the average person emits 386 kilograms of CO2 per year during domestic flights, compared to just 0.14 kilograms in Rwanda. Yet the picture is muddied further as estimates state that 20% of the US population have never flown in their life, and just over a tenth of the population take 66% of flights. While the “super frequent fliers” of the world undoubtedly need to fly a lot less, there is an argument that suggests flight shaming all travellers is going to do more harm than good.

‘Not every tonne of CO2 is created equal’ 

Environmental impact with emissions


Research has shown that choosing not to fly can be the environmentally damaging choice for some journeys. To briefly explore this, it all comes down to the variables involved in every trip: distance travelled, energy source, and passenger numbers. For example, trains are far more efficient on short-haul journeys, but this clarity is lost as the distance increases. Efficiency of train travel is also far lower in the US, as they run on diesel fuel, compared to the electric trains across Europe.

A solo long-distance car trip can be more carbon-intensive than some air travel, as occupancy in the car is theoretically at 20%, compared to a full plane of passengers, each sharing the burden of the emissions produced. While this research clouds over the unwavering position of flygskam, at least one thing is made clear: we need to be thoughtful about our travel choices.

As well as assessing our journeys, we need to recognise that flying less for the environment would mean very different things for different people. For example, business travel – synonymous with global jet-setting and airport hotels – is responsible for a great portion of aviation emissions, despite the relatively small number of travellers. Yet the outbreak of COVID-19 has illuminated how adaptable behaviours are, and how superfluous a lot of business air travel is. 

In comparison, “the top 20 destinations most reliant on tourism… were only responsible for 0.61% of global passenger aviation emissions in 2018”. A tourist and a business traveller can both be on a return flight to the Maldives, but each of their carbon emissions are not created equally. In the words of Sola Zheng, every tonne of carbon dioxide produced is physically the same, yet “the economic and social aspects of flying require us to further deliberate on reducing aviation emissions”.

In other words, who is likely to have a better impact on the community they arrive in? The tourist staying in independent accommodation, eating at local restaurants and experiencing authentic culture, or the business traveller staying in the chain hotel on a quick turnaround, there for a meeting that could have taken place virtually. 

Economic intricacies of travel

Therefore, in being thoughtful about our travel choices, we need to include those we visit too. Evidently, if everyone immediately stopped flying in an effort to help save the environment, an entirely new issue would unfold. Economic collapse would occur the world over, as the GDP of countries heavily dependent on international travel would plummet – COVID-19 providing a glimpse through the window at a world where no one travels at all.

Travel and tourism brings employment to a huge range of sectors, and has been an incredible force of economic growth for developing countries. In Bangladesh 944 jobs are created for every 100 tourists that visit. This has great potential for social mobility, when a “pro-poor tourism” model is employed. To stop flying means a loss of vital income for countless communities around the world.

Without proper infrastructure, choosing not to fly threatens to exacerbate an already high risk of poverty, also shown to be inextricably linked to climate change. As part of the affluent minority of the world’s population, responsible for an overwhelming majority of flights, we must add texture to flight shaming, by assessing our need to travel: how, where, and why.

Caught between environmental and social responsibility, which do you choose?

When it comes to leisure travel, global experiences and sharing cultures, how can one justify air travel? The answer is hidden within three questions:

Why are you travelling? 

Where are you travelling too? 

How are you travelling, and how often? 

In the advent of COVID-19, with ever greater awareness of environmental degradation, people have found a need to justify their flights. Not so justifiable anymore is the world of business travel. Business travellers make up 12% of passengers, but provide airlines with at least 24% of their revenue, up to 75% on some routes. Additionally, business and first class seats are five times more polluting than economy class, as the larger seats mean fewer passengers can fly per kilogram of CO2.

As the widespread use of video conferencing has been normalised, the unquestioned necessity of this form of travel has been rightfully opposed. But as an undeniable pillar of our globalised society, can some air travel be justified?

Why are you travelling?

One can argue many reasons for air travel are morally justifiable. First of all, it seems greatly unfair to demand people quit flying when a globalised world and life has long been promoted. As well as international economies and politics, the world is now full of global families too. Grandparents rooted in a homeland welcome their families from all corners of the earth. Is it fair to tell someone they can’t see or care for their family if they can’t afford a more carbon-efficient transport alternative? 

Secondly, the wider availability of flying over the last 70 years has increased many people’s access to cultures other than their own. As the pressure of the climate crisis raises tempers and strains relations, it is more important than ever to be able to connect with those different to yourself. 

From the first time you see the pale expression of a tired French baker in the boulangerie, to the majesty of each and every Kenyan sunset, travel provides a learning experience unlike any other. It’s ability to show you a world beyond your own cannot be lost. I would argue there is a fundamental difference between those who fly short-haul journeys out of convenience, for business, doing so unsustainably, and a completely different type of traveller. Flygskam’s blanket ban targets young malleable minds and seasoned wanderers alike, each desperately reaching out over the continents in search of freedom, denying them just that. 

Where are you travelling too?

Are you travelling to a place where tourism is imposed or led by the local community? For example, Amsterdam – a city I’ve previously called home – has become something of a cliche. Like many cities across Europe, it’s cobbled streets have turned into a “giant open-air museum”. After a low-cost, short-haul flight you can reach the dense city centre where no local would dare to tread. Travellers spend their money in chain restaurants and big-name shops, and can leave without ever truly connecting to real Dutch culture. 

In contrast, community-based tourism has been proven to be a force for real change. Here, money remains in the hands of the community, and does not go through what is commonly termed in the industry as “leakage” – whereby profits made from tourism very rarely end up in the pockets of locals. This extractive tourism does little for the betterment of the community who actually live there, instead only increasing the cost of living and inequality alongside it. In contrast, community-based tourism is often found in rural, economically isolated places where its existence has a direct, positive impact on the lives of those who welcome you. 

With local employment and training, the celebration of authentic, indigenous culture and protection of the local environment all integral within this model, communities are given a solid source of income and purpose. One example is Tongole Wilderness Lodge in the Nkhotakota Reserve of Malawi. The luxury lodge hires many people from surrounding communities, is entirely run on solar power, and constructed in a way so as to have as little impact on the surrounding habitat as possible.

Their foundation works with local communities, and supports three local schools. Other similar places use the money made from guests to fund conservation projects, increase anti-poaching technology across reserves and support local healthcare infrastructure. 

These community-focused places rely solely on international travellers, without whom they would have no income. While aesthetically juxtaposed from these rural communities, aviation is an essential feature of their economic security. I ask you, whether COVID-19 provided your destination with a welcome breath of fresh air, or was an economic shock they have yet to recover from. 

How are you travelling, and how often?

The fact is, a minority of people are responsible for an overwhelming majority of flights: in the UK and USA, “the richest 10% produce at least five times the emissions of the poorest 50% of households”. In the UK, 57% of people do not fly at all, and just 15% of the population are responsible for 70% of all flights. This disparity has led Dan Rutherford of the ICCT to argue: “should you be ashamed of flying? Probably not”

Taking flights once a year to destinations that expand your horizons and aid the economic security of those you visit is a far cry from flying to New York to travel back across the water on a cruise ship.

With everything paid for before you board, all the entertainment one could need, and luxury dining every night, cruise ships have been cast as the dream holiday for some. But 7.6 times as much carbon dioxide is produced on a cruise ship than the same journey by plane, and locals are all but forgotten about.

Extractive, inauthentic and unsustainable – traditional cruise ships are a product of a pre climate change era. It is time that tourism cares as much for the locals as it does for the traveller.

Here at Pure Breaks, after great research we have partnered with Hurtigruten, an operator who runs environmental and expeditionary trips across the world. Having implemented a voluntary ban on heavy fuel oil a decade ago, they are pioneering the construction of the first ever hybrid-electric cruise ship, which they hope will fundamentally change the industry. The group also ensures true social and cultural engagement in the places they visit, as guests are encouraged to become environmental ambassadors of places they have visited.

There are also many steps you can take as an individual traveller to reduce your carbon footprint as much as possible while flying. Just take a look at our 11 ways to reduce your carbon footprint when you fly!

The Future of Flight

There is a way to travel without feeling ashamed, but we cannot ignore what the flygskam movement has illuminated:- a lot of air travel is unjustifiable in this age of climate change. The light that has been shone on aviation should shine brightest on those who fly in excess, on short journeys, to events that could be virtual, or tourist destinations in need of relief. The Eurostar is a great example of the adjustments you can make, opting for slow travel, to take your time and ponder the tree lines as you race across Northern France or Belgium.

Previously heralded as a cornerstone of our globalised world, flying has facilitated beautiful cultural fusions, as mother’s recipes and musical styles travelled the world in the guitar case of a long-haul flight. For the survival of many developing, rural and isolated communities, this exploratory hunger, that brings with it authentic connection and real economic support, must be separated from unjustifiable air travel. The questions I’ve explored here allow you to understand the difference. 

“The final component of changing our travel habits is demanding larger, structural change. ”

There is an argument that “eliminating flying is a distraction”, it is yet another plastic straw, getting consumers to focus on their own consumption, to forget the role of carbon-intensive industries and government inaction. There is truth to this, but yet again the picture is not black and white. We need to demand structural change and climate policies, and adjust our own lifestyles; we cannot ignore flight shaming, and in many ways it has done wonderful things for people’s climate consciousness.

But, in the wake of this rising awareness among consumers, we need to be careful not to lose the nuance within travel, and the positive powers that leisure travel specifically brings to dependent communities and habitats. To vilify the entirety of the aviation industry, and all fliers within it, removes recognition of the vital economic potency of and the real need, in many communities, for visitors who have travelled by air. 

Further articles:

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