Exploring flight free
Updated: May 22
It’s over a decade since I sat on a plane, one of only a dozen or so I’ve sat on in my life, on the quick hop across the Channel to visit my sister in Jersey. On such a small island the runway sits near to the edge of a cliff, and often on our visits we would go to the wide, sandy sweep of St Ouen’s bay in the west of the island to watch the planes come in, seemingly perilously close to crashing into it. I marvelled at aircraft; I didn’t question them, even though everything else in my life was done with an eye firmly on the environment. “They’re small planes anyway so it’s not as bad,” my sister had said; and besides, how else was I going to get there?
In 2009 I watched The Age of Stupid, the film directed by Franny Armstrong and starring Pete Postlethwaite as the man looking back from the future and despairing at what we were doing to the planet. The worst part was that we were doing it knowingly. I came out of the cinema feeling a bit sick, with the words of Lizzie, a co-producer, ringing in my ears: the two best things you can do for the environment is 1. get more green politicians elected and 2. stop flying. I stood as the Green Party candidate for Hackney Council the very next year (tantalisingly close to getting elected with 30% of the vote), and decided that I would never again get on a plane.
From then on, other things followed. I went vegan, refused to buy clothes unless they came from a charity shop, and signed up to green energy, in addition to already cycling everywhere and recycling absolutely everything. I’d never wanted children anyway but realised that had also become an environmental statement – my efforts to keep my own carbon footprint down would be pretty worthless if I just produced a load more feet. Eventually I moved off grid onto a boat, where I generate all my electricity from a solar panel, use a composting toilet, and by virtue of not having much space, keep consumption to a minimum.
And there I remained, happy living my low-carbon life, and letting everyone else get on with theirs. But then, in late 2018, the IPCC published a report that said we had twelve years left to make a meaningful reduction in our emissions or we were heading for certain climate breakdown. The effects of it were already being felt. This was make or break. I no longer felt content with my own personal life choices – what good was it me doing these things if the majority of the people around me were not? My own actions were not enough. I had to start encouraging others to make the same choices.
A well-meaning website, Sustainable You, never got off the ground. But then I heard an interview on the radio with a Swedish lady, Maja Rosén, about a campaign she’d set up which asked 100,000 Swedes not to fly in 2019. I loved the collective nature of it – while we can often feel like our one action doesn’t make a difference, if we know that many others are taking the same action, that’s when individuals can start to change the world. And I liked that it was just for a year – giving something up for a short period of time in order to inspire longer-term behaviour change.
I emailed her straight away to ask if there was a similar campaign running in the UK and if not, could I set one up. And that is how I came to be the Director of Flight Free UK – a grassroots campaign that informs people of the climate impact of aviation and inspires them to travel by other means. It's about creating a social shift away from aviation, and encouraging more and more people to take those lifestyle decisions that I had taken over a decade before.
Because I had, of course, learned that a life without flying was perfectly liveable. I could even still go to Jersey – boats have existed for far longer than planes, after all. And with an extensive railway network, we have the whole of Europe on our doorstep. My motivation for my first big bicycle tour, riding 4000 miles around the coast of Britain, was to find adventure without getting on a plane – indeed, without even leaving these shores – and I certainly found it.
Since setting up Flight Free UK I have found a huge tribe of people who have taken similar action with their travel choices. Some people haven’t flown for many years; some have only just given up. In the same way that being vegan just six years ago would result in confused looks and the offer of a salad, whereas now I have a whole menu to myself (choice!! Imagine!), the whole concept of choosing not to fly is becoming more mainstream. In fact, I often liken the campaign to Veganuary – we are asking people to take a period of time away from something, to see what the alternatives are, with the hope that it will feed into future behaviours.
There is a huge amount of information on the Flight Free UK website about why taking action in this way is important, with stories of people who have reduced the amount they fly or stopped altogether, and advice on how and where to travel overland. But the main point is this: we are at a critical time in relation to climate breakdown, and we desperately need to reduce our emissions, fast. On an individual level, flying less is the quickest and most effective way to reduce your carbon footprint. As Maja Rosén from the Swedish campaign says, stopping flying is not the only thing we can do to solve the climate crisis, but we definitely won't solve it if we continue to fly.
Please consider reducing your flights. You can take a Flight Free pledge here.