“What we really need is a change of mentality. Let’s get ready for an era where flying is the new smoking.”

Professor Dorothea Hilhorst has done a blog on how essential it is for everyone, including development practitioners and academics, to cut the amount they fly. She asks whether flying should become the new smoking and how we can address our problematic flying behaviour. This is especially vital after the IPCC report that showed how humanity needs to keep global warming to 1.5C.  She says: “…governments should get their acts together and start taxing air travel, while investing in alternatives” … “organisations and their employees should also take some level of responsibility.” … “What we really need, though, is a change of mentality. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. ” There are alternatives.  Like other academics she has “found it normal or at best a necessary evil to hop on a plane for every piece of research, conference or seminar.” This has to change. There are problems like the department saying: “Sorry, we are short on budget this year, would you mind taking the plane rather than the train?” There is a lot academia (and business etc) could do, such as organising international conferences “every three or four years rather than every year” or more use of Skype for seminars etc, or “investing more in identifying and fostering local experts to avoid international consultancies.” Read the full blog.


“It’s time for flying to become the new smoking”

by Dorothea Hilhorst  (Blog by ISS – International Institute of Social Studies – Bliss)

OCTOBER 17, 2018

The recently published IPCC report paints a grim picture of the future if carbon emissions are not immediately and fundamentally reversed. It is now necessary to focus on our own contribution to the mess that we’ve made, Dorothea Hilhorst argues. She focuses on the flying habits of development practitioners and academics, asking whether flying should become the new smoking and how we can address our problematic flying behaviour.

Flying is an important contributor to global warming, and by far one of the most complicated. There are no signs that flying will be reduced and technical solutions to reduce carbon emissions are a long way off and not very feasible. Unlike cars, electric planes are not an option—flying a plane would require its entire space to be filled with batteries.

The IPCC report that came out last week is absolutely terrifying. The possibility of retaining global heating within 1.5 degrees is rapidly disappearing and we are facing global warming of 2 or even 3 degrees. The report contains convincing evidence of the devastation of that extra degree on biodiversity, sea level rise, disaster events, the economy, coral reefs, and so on.

With regards to flying, governments should get their acts together and start taxing air travel, while investing in alternatives, especially a huge expansion of fast train networks. But in the meantime, I think organisations and their employees should also take some level of responsibility.

The IPCC report comes out in the midst of a scandal over the irresponsible ‘flying behaviour’ of Erik Solheim, the director of the United Nations Environment Programme, who travels 80% of his time. In the coverage of the scandal, most attention centred on his flying for private purposes. This reflects a general view that private flying is a luxury, but business-related travel is just what needs to be done. But is that really true? I’m pretty sure that huge cuts could easily be made in business-related air travel.

There is now a call for environmental guidelines within the UN. What, only now? Shocking, right? But let’s be honest, the whole aid and development world—the UN, NGOs, and my own world of academic departments and development studies—is shamefully late in taking responsibility.

For decades, I have not given my flying behaviour much thought either, and found it normal or at best a necessary evil to hop on a plane for every piece of research, conference or seminar.

I will not go into name-shaming, but I know for a fact that some of the front runner developmental institutes and think tanks are not using carbon offsetting for their flights, and have no policy on reducing air travel. Since a few years back, I have tried to reduce my own air travel. I still have an oversized ecological footprint, but I fly significantly less than I used to.

I also—cautiously—try to bring up the topic in conversations with people I work with. Here some experiences:

1) When preparing a lecture at a development institute in the UK: “Sorry, we are short on budget this year, would you mind taking the plane rather than the train?”

2) A director of a development department in the Netherlands: “Sorry, we are too busy. We will consider introducing a policy next year”.

3) A consultant coming over for an assignment: “Really, is there now a train connecting London to Amsterdam in less than four hours? I didn’t know”.

Two further defences are that people start laughing when I raise this issue, because they consider air travel to be at the core of who we are; or that they point at real polluters, usually big business or an American president. Good points, but my reading of the IPCC report is that all of us need to step up the effort: governments, business, institutions, employees and consumers.

I also know many people that refuse to carbon offset because some offset programmes are open to criticism, or because they find this tokenistic. However, offsetting is a first step. While the IPCC focuses on the devastation of future temperature rises, it is absolutely clear that climate change is already wreaking havoc, especially for poor people in poor countries.

More droughts, floods, fires. More hunger, poverty, and distress migration. It is a core principle in environmental politics that polluters should pay. There are a number of offset schemes that take this into account and use the money they generate for programs that combine livelihoods with mitigation of carbon emission, for example by protecting the vast peat areas in the world that contain huge levels of carbon. If only for this reason, a simple measure such as offsetting every flight you take should not be too much to ask.

But compensation programmes can only ever be a first small step. Next comes sharply reducing the number of flights we take.

Of course, there are already signs of these changes, and best practices are rapidly evolving. I have the feeling that NGOs may be ahead of the game compared to universities and research institutes. We academics may even be worse than the United Nations or some companies. Some obvious things we could do:

  • Some NGOs (like Oxfam) have ruled that travel below xx hours cannot use air travel. I have not yet heard of a single university that sets such rules.
  • No more face-to-face job interviews, where applicants are invited to fly in so that the personal chemistry can be tested.
  • Organise international conferences of study associations every three or four years rather than every year.
  • Get used to teaching and seminars through Skype.
  • Introduce a rule that planes must be booked well in advance to avoid that the only available or affordable ticket comes with three stops and huge detours.
  • Invest more in identifying and fostering local experts to avoid international consultancies.

I’m sure there are plenty more examples, and would love to hear suggestions. Taxing carbon use and investing in green transport systems like fast trains will definitely help to reduce air travel.

What we really need, though, is a change of mentality. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Let’s get ready for an era where flying is the new smoking. It won’t be long before people who fly have some awkward explaining to do over the Friday afternoon drinks after work.


About the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. See other articles by her here and here and here and here




See earlier:

Petition set up by academics from many countries asks universities across the world to reduce flying

A group of 56 scholars has launched a petition calling on universities and academic professional associations to greatly reduce flying-related footprint as part of effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions.  The academic group believe there is a need for collective action to improve the climate profile of academic communities. A petition has been set up, asking universities, institutions of higher education and professional associations to greatly reduce their flying. It appreciates that for academics to fly less, it requires their colleagues to change behaviour.  There is an expectation to attend meetings and conferences. The petition asks universities etc to include all university-related flying (whether directly paid by the university or by others) in their environmental impact measurement and goal-setting.  Also to support and work to realise marked reductions in flying by faculty, staff, and students commensurate with the cuts suggested by climate science. And to establish and publish short- and medium-term benchmarks for reductions. The petition originators hope universities etc will use their influence with professional associations to reduce reliance on flying for academic and research conferencing. Professor Kevin Anderson, a respected UK climate scientist, has already written and spoken often on this subject, and does not fly to conferences.   

Kevin Anderson blog on decisions of academics and climate community about personal travel

In a blog in June 2014, Professor Kevin Anderson writes about the need for people to consider their own behaviour in relation to flying. He is personally highly conscious of his own energy use.  He looks in particular at academics and those in the climate change community, and their justification for the use of high carbon travel. These are some quotes: “Amongst academics, NGOs, green-business gurus and climate change policy makers, there is little collective sense of either the urgency of change needed or of our being complicit in the grim situation we now face.”  And on the desire to fly to save time to spend with our families: “When we’re dead and buried our children will likely still be here dealing with the legacy of our inaction today; do we discount their futures at such a rate as to always favour those family activities that we can join in with?”  And “Surely if humankind is to respond to the unprecedented challenges posed by soaring emissions, we, as a community, should be a catalyst for change – behaving as if we believe in our own research, campaign objectives etc. – rather than simply acting as a bellwether of society’s complacency.”




NASA JPL scientist explains why he gave up flying: “I don’t like harming others, so I don’t fly.”

Academics fly a lot, and there is the presumption that this is essential for their work and for international university connections etc. A climate scientist, Dr Peter Kalmus (who works for the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory) has decided that his own lifestyle is not consistent with his understanding of rising anthropogenic carbon emissions. “I try to avoid burning fossil fuels, because it’s clear that doing so causes real harm to humans and to non-humans, today and far into the future. I don’t like harming others, so I don’t fly.” He says: “I experienced a lot of social pressure to fly, so it took me three years to quit. Not flying for vacations was relatively easy.” Long trips by road to  visit family were a bit harder. He comments that he knows scientists who fly a lot, but “just don’t think about it” and “most people simply don’t know the huge impact of their flying—but I also suspect that many of us are addicted to it.  We’ve come to see flying as an inalienable right, a benefit of 21st-century living that we take for granted.”  “In today’s world, we’re still socially rewarded for burning fossil fuels. We equate frequent flying with success; we rack up our “miles.” This is backward: Burning fossil fuels does real harm to the biosphere, to our children, and to countless generations—and it should, therefore, be regarded as socially unacceptable.”