The No-Jet Set: They’ve Given Up Flying to Save the Planet
These days, the skies don’t seem so inviting: Airfares are climbing. Passengers are fighting. Computer systems, and entire airlines, are melting down.
Any of those might be reason enough for some to stay off a plane. But for a small, yet growing, number of travelers, the problem with air travel goes way further. They are giving up flying because of its impact on the climate.
“I choose to stay grounded because it aligns with what is true,” said Dan Castrigano, 36, a former teacher who in 2020 signed a pledge not to travel by air. “The climate is breaking down.”
The last eight years on earth have been the hottest on record. Sea level rise is accelerating, and extreme weather events are happening more often than ever.
Air travel accounts for about 4 percent of human-induced global warming, and the United Nations warns that airplane emissions are set to triple by 2050. Planes are becoming more efficient, but our appetite for air travel is outpacing the industry’s environmental gains.
One Boeing 747 carrying 416 passengers from Heathrow Airport in London to Edinburgh produces the same carbon dioxide as 336 cars traveling the same distance, according to BBC Science Focus, a peer-reviewed magazine, though such comparisons depend on a wide range of factors like fuel efficiency and even the time of day. That jumbo carbon footprint is leading many activists and scientists to issue rallying cries to fly less, or not at all.
“This is a climate emergency,” said Peter Kalmus, a climate scientist with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory who founded No Fly Climate Sci, an online forum on the link between aviation and climate change. “When you get on a plane, not only are you responsible for emissions, but you’re also casting a vote to continue expanding that system.”
Trading wings for wheels
Mr. Castrigano, who lives in Burlington, Vt., spent more than a decade as a middle school teacher. He traveled extensively during that time, but has become increasingly concerned about the pace of climate change over the past five years.
Neither he nor his wife, Laura, has taken a flight since 2019. And in 2021, Mr. Castrigano left his classroom job to take on a new role as chief content officer at SubjecttoClimate, a nonprofit organization that provides climate-related teaching resources.
Staying on the ground doesn’t mean he stays put. He takes frequent bicycle trips around Vermont. When he travels shorter distances, he drives an all-electric Nissan Leaf. Next month, when a good friend gets married in California, he and his family will take several weeks to make their way across the country by train, a choice that, according to the 2021 U.S. Department of Energy Data Book, is 34 percent more energy-efficient per passenger than traveling by air.
“I would love to visit every place on earth,” he said. “But my mental health would be poor if I were to fly.”
In 2020, Mr. Castrigano signed a pledge at Flight Free USA to not travel on airplanes that year, and he has renewed the pledge annually. His community of fellow signatories is small — Ariella Granett, a co-founder of the site, says 365 people signed on in 2022, and in past years the number has climbed to nearly 450. Flight Free has a larger presence in Australia and Britain, and across Europe, a number of similar organizations are rallying travelers to abandon air travel.
Ms. Granett, 46, works as an architect and an interior designer in Berkeley, Calif. She has been a climate activist for decades, she said, but felt the need for more critical action during California’s increasingly ferocious and destructive recent wildfire seasons.
“Living through that brought the climate urgency deep into my gut,” Ms. Granett said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be on a plane again.”
Like most travelers committed to reducing or eliminating their air travel, she shuns the idea of carbon offsets, in which carbon credits can be purchased, often through actions like planting trees, in exchange for greenhouse gases emitted.
As climate change intensifies, critics say that rather than erasing carbon in the atmosphere, the practice preys on travelers’ guilt and offers an excuse to pollute without producing viable results. Many point to intensifying wildfires in the American West, which have burned down forests planted with carbon offset funds, as a metaphor for the inefficiency of offsets.
“I actually think it would be better for people to fly without offsets but be aware of the pollution they’re making, rather than just thinking, ‘Oh, I solved that problem,’” Ms. Granett said.
Ms. Granett was inspired to start Flight Free USA, she said, after reading a 2019 article in Vox about a group in Sweden that was committed to breaking the air-travel habit.
‘Flight shame’ goes global
There is perhaps no country on earth with more anti-flight activists than Sweden, where by 2020, 15,000 people had signed a nationwide pledge to travel without flying for at least one year. The nonprofit behind that movement, We Stay on the Ground, is currently raising funds and hopes to get 100,000 signatories in the next few years.
Many Americans are aware of Sweden’s young climate activist Greta Thunberg, who in 2019 chose to sail across the Atlantic on an emissions-free yacht to speak to the United Nations. But Swedes — who have coined a word, flygskam, to describe the shame associated with flying — point to earlier figures, including the opera singer Malena Ernman, who is Ms. Thunberg’s mother, and the journalist Jens Liljestrand, as those who started the trend.
“A lot of people think that what you do as an individual doesn’t matter much. But the thing is, what we do as individuals affects everyone around us, and changes norms,” said Maja Rosén, 41, the president of We Stay on the Ground, who gave up flying in 2008. Ms. Rosén, who lives in Sweden, now travels primarily by train.
We Stay on the Ground inspired the Flight Free movements in Britain and Australia, as well as Flight Free USA. There are other grass-roots movements, too: Stay Grounded, a global network of more than 150 organizations promoting alternatives to air travel, was founded in 2016 and has its headquarters in Austria; Byway, a British travel planning company founded during the Covid-19 lockdown, allows customers to plan flight-free itineraries across Europe.
“There are so many beautiful places all over the world. But do we want to visit them and destroy them at the same time?” said Anne Kretzschmar, 31, who lives in Cologne, Germany, and runs Stay Grounded’s Reframing Project, which focuses on combating greenwashing, a practice in which organizations portray themselves as more eco-friendly than they really are. She travels by train, bike and foot. On a recent trip between Italy and Morocco, she took a ferry. She’d like to go to more places, but says she doesn’t want to contribute to forces that are causing environmental disaster. “We can see many absurd things like people flying to see the coral reefs before they die,” she said, noting that climate change is a main culprit in the reefs’ deaths.
Airlines are making an effort to fly more sustainably, with pledges to achieve “net zero” carbon emissions in the next three decades and move toward alternative fuels and electric power. Airlines for America, a trade association that lobbies on behalf of airlines, said in a statement that the industry was working with the U.S. government to reduce its footprint even as, the group said, “U.S. carriers transport over two million passengers and more than 65,000 tons of cargo per day while contributing just 2 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions.”
Activists say that progress isn’t coming fast enough and are pushing for frequent fliers to at least consider small changes, which they say could add up to big differences.
“We get a lot of American customers who will fly into Europe, but then we’ll help them travel around for two weeks through various European countries using sleeper trains,” said Cat Jones, founder and chief executive at Byway. The shift, she said, allows them to “travel slowly and soak up more experiences.” Many of her clients still opt to fly across the Atlantic rather than travel by boat, she said, citing research that shows cruise ships can actually emit more carbon per passenger than jets do.
Mr. Castrigano says that if the day comes when vessels like the one used by Ms. Thunberg in her 2019 crossing are more available, he would jump aboard. “I would love to visit every place on earth and, like Greta, get on a boat and head somewhere else. But right now I’m sort of limited to this continent,” he said.
Cutting back, but not to zero
Will and Claire Stedden, both 34, who live in Madison, Wis., are taking a slightly more flexible approach. The couple are excited for their next flight, even though it won’t happen for several years. They point to guidance from Take the Jump, a website devoted to simple changes we can all make to combat climate change, citing scientific research that travelers can stay sustainable by limiting long-haul flights to once every eight years, or domestic trips to once every three.
The two have been flight-free for three years and plan to wait five more before taking a trip to Europe. For now, they chronicle their bike and train trips on Instagram, and Mr. Stedden, a data scientist, believes that he appreciates his travels more.
Mr. Castrigano, the former teacher who has vowed to forgo air travel, said, “People think of just flying anywhere we want, at the drop of a hat, as being something normal,” adding, “but if you stop thinking of it as normal, all of a sudden you start thinking in terms of places you truly want to go.”
Ms. Rosén, of We Stay on the Ground, said the shift to ground transportation had also helped her redefine travel.
“We need to think about what we really want from our vacations, and why we need to go so far away to get that,” she said. “A lot of people who take the flight-free pledge say they wouldn’t change it even if they could, because when you travel by train, the trip itself becomes part of the adventure.”
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