Environment-friendly travel: To fly or not to fly?

Profiles in Norwegian science

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Each day, thousands of Norwegian pass through Oslo’s Gardermoen Airport, but is all this travel necessary, and can it be justified in terms of environmental impact?

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

Norwegians can represent themselves as being highly environmentally and socially responsible, as well as being highly mobile with the privilege of making travel choices. With “flight shaming”—criticizing people who travel on airplanes—as a contemporary environmentalist pastime, should Norwegians and others restrict their airtime for ethical reasons?

A recent study explores Norwegian environmentalists’ reasons for flying. Johannes Volden and Arve Hansen from the University of Oslo’s Center for Development and the Environment (SUM) interviewed 13 Oslo-based workers at environmental organizations. Through informal conversations, interviewees described their flying practices, reasons, concerns, and values within wider environmentalism.

The results were as expected. Participants recognized arguments against excessive flying, while articulating understandable and practical reasons for some air journeys.

Paramount is seeing family and friends. The paper notes that Oslo-Kristiansand is 50 minutes by plane and around four hours by train or car. Oslo-Tromsø takes more than 12 times longer by land than by air. These numbers do not account for getting to and from airports or train stations nor the need to take breaks while driving. When people work weekdays and socialize weekends, time en route is deducted from time with loved ones.

Personal time includes vacations. Many Norwegians struggle with the cold, dark winters. A beach break supports their mental and physical health, even if it means flying to the Mediterranean, Florida, or Thailand.

Plus, consider the usual work-related reasons. Many cultures expect face-to-face interactions to build trust and credibility. While huge conferences and large-scale meetings display a pattern of dubious value, local action often succeeds with in-person international support.

Any action such as travel has benefits as well as costs. Enfolded within these conscience-wracking calculations are assumptions that deserve to be challenged by science beyond anti-flyers’ perceptions and populist flight shaming.

Full life cycles of energy, material, and impact for construction, maintenance, and decommissioning ought to be determined before judging any selection of a mode of travel. Railways and roads use pollution-intensive materials to traverse thousands of miles while cleaving landscapes. Computers and internet infrastructures rely on rare Earth metals, which devastates the areas around mines, followed by the transportation, processing, and disposal costs of the metals.

Further consequences of not flying might emerge. One interviewee in the study explained that her own reluctance for a short hop to visit family led to two relatives coming to her. An individual’s decision not to fly led to two others choosing to fly the same route. Meanwhile, the paper explains that cruise ships are more environmentally damaging than commercial flying.

As ordinary people try to do the best for themselves, their families, and their employers, the paper discusses wider contexts. Notably, people who fly infrequently—even if intercontinentally—are not a major problem compared to those for whom flying is, effectively, a lifestyle. The authors reiterate previous studies quantifying that “the most frequent flyers, which amount to 1% or less of the world population, are responsible for more than half of passenger air-travel emissions.” Several individuals forgoing family time a few times a year yield minimal results compared with a single elite status traveler dropping down a frequent flyer tier or two.

Of even higher impact—and absent from the paper—are private jets and military flights. Every year at the United Nations climate change negotiations, celebrities arrive in their own aircraft to advocate for less consumption. Military aircraft are suggested as emitting far more and far worse pollutants than commercial aircraft.

Certainly, one sector’s pollution does not justify another’s. Even flying for environmentalist activities is hardly enviro-flying. And the airline industry’s continuing experiments with biofuels, electric aircraft, and more efficient flying strategies do not give reasons to worry less, since all these actions still consume resources. The key is a balanced examination of the overall picture and not becoming fixated on a single line item.

Individual commercial flying sits within everyone’s responsibility, including Norwegians, to reduce overall consumption. In doing so, consequences worse than impacts from a few flights must be avoided.

The paper discussed here can be found at doi.org/10.1080/17450101.2021.1985381.

This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at www.ilankelman.org and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.