Should you fly less?

Happy Monday! I’m beyond psyched to present you this conversation with my mentor and dear friend Parke Wilde. Dr. Wilde taught two of my favorite courses in graduate school (determinants of US food policy, and regression analysis – I am a nerd, what can I say ¯\_(ツ)_/¯), and I was lucky enough to work with him on several nutrition policy studies during my research stint at Tufts University. I learned so much from him about how to view the world with nuance and compassion, not only in my work but also in my personal life, and I’m constantly amazed by his expertise, wisdom, and pragmatism. In this Q&A, we talk about emission from the aviation industry, his initiative to reduce unnecessary flying, and why you should consider flying less. Enjoy!

Q: What is Flying Less? And why should I care?

A: Broadly, growing numbers of people around the world are flying less for a mix of environmental and personal reasons. Specifically, our #flyingless project (flyingless.org and @flyingless) is a petition initiative encouraging universities and professional associations to set goals and measure progress for reducing flying, as a stepping stone to ambitious social change in other sectors as well.

Q: Tell us more about yourself. Who are you, and what motivated you to start this initiative?

Dr. Parke Wilde.
(Image credit: Nicholas Pfosi)

A: I am a food economist and professor at the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy and author of a book on U.S. Food Policy. Like many people in our network, I was shocked several years ago to realize that flying was a large fraction of the carbon footprint for myself and most academics. We hear sometimes that aviation represents “only” about 3% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, but the percentage turns out to be much higher in rich countries and vastly higher for people and professions that fly frequently.

Q: Have you gotten any traction so far?

Yes, our petition initiative, which started in 2015, has more than 600 academic supporters around the world, and continues to grow. Newer projects include major petition initiatives in Denmark, France, and many other countries, as well as online campaigns with hashtags such as #flightfree2020.

Q: This all sounds great theoretically, but does my individual choice really matter? As in, wouldn’t the plane take off anyway, with or without me?

Airlines are not in the business of flying empty planes. Paying passengers are responsible for each flight. Meat eaters cannot say that their steak has no emissions, just because it is just one cut from a larger cow. See our FAQ for more on this.

Credit: Carbon Brief, 2016.

Q: Ok. You have convinced me flying generates a lot of greenhouse gas and my choices do matter. Does that mean I should never fly? What if I want to see family and friends who live far away?

A: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that drastic reductions in emissions are needed to avoid the severe consequences of global warming above approximately 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Personally, I did not initially intend to become a non-flyer, but I sought to start flying only when necessary, using an honest definition of “necessary” (in the sense that I was willing to accept mild career consequences, or less frequent visits with distant family, or a few days of travel inconvenience per year). It turns out that for me this approach led to zero flying.

For somebody with family in China, (–> that’s me 🙂 ) I think a reasonable goal for a current frequent flyer could be sharp reduction in total flying, encouraging others to do likewise. I do not judge my friends against a zero flying standard, but do hope they support this initiative!

For our academic and research community as a whole, we can sharply reduce our current levels of flying, while preserving the good work we do and preserving what makes research professions delightful.

Credit: Wynes & Donner, 2018, Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions report.

Q: I am an academic – how can I or my institution participate?

Our petition text has 4 reasonable planks for universities, and another 4 for professional associations. We hope universities will set goals for reduction in all university-associated flying and report progress as part of the annual sustainability reports they already produce.

Q: What if I am not an academic – can I still participate?

Of course. See the @FlightFree2020 campaign on Twitter, as well as @flyingless, and also you can support our general public online petition. And spread the word to everybody who will listen. Your blog post is a wonderful helpful example. Thanks for your interest!

Well, isn’t that nice to hear 🙂

I hope this conversation makes you reflect on your own flying choices. No judgement at all from me! I still do a quite a bit of flying each year, including a trip to China to see family. For future personal or work travels on the East Coast though, I am hoping to take the train more often.

To support Flying Less, you can head over to their website for more information and updates: flyingless.org. In particular, I encourage you to read their informative and extensive FAQ for questions that we didn’t get into here. To follow Dr. Wilde’s work, you can check out his blog: US Food Policy, a public interest perspective.