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Make A Difference: Flying to a better climate

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In Ireland, aviation accounts for 20% of the carbon emissions from transport. Bridget Ginnity highlights some changes we can make as individuals to reduce our impact on the climate.

There’s something about the fading autumn days that turns our thoughts to holidays abroad. Maybe it’s the allure of a seaside holiday without fleeces, an outdoor meal without the patter of raindrops or prices that don’t break the bank.

And there’s definitely the desire to see family – many of us have loved ones living abroad that we haven’t seen and hugged in so long, it almost hurts.

After travel restrictions were lifted, heading abroad became a possibility again. After two summers of staycations and few if any visits with family abroad, some of us were like a greyhound from a trap at the prospect of foreign holidays.

But the news is filled with disasters linked with climate change and can make us feel guilty, defensive or anxious about flying abroad. By looking into it in a bit more detail, we can adapt our way of traveling to reduce the impact.

Is it an issue?

Not everyone in Ireland flies regularly. About 60% of the adult population don’t fly in a given year – so if you are one of those, you can smile with satisfaction that you don’t have an impact on the climate from flying.

About 1% of the global population account for half the carbon emissions from passenger air travel. As you’d expect, that includes really wealthy people with private aircraft.

Hilary Clinton effectively flew around the world 10 times each year when she was Secretary of State. Yet surprisingly, a number of us in Clare may be in the elite 1% group, especially if we do some business travel.

One long haul trip, one to the Canaries and about a half dozen around Europe in a year is enough to join Hilary in the 1% club.

In Ireland, aviation accounts for 20% of the carbon emissions from transport. Our personal impact depends on how frequently and how far we fly.

Cut out or cut down?

We could go cold turkey and stop flying altogether. That’s not easy when we live on a small island with a history of emigration. Planes and ships are our only way of getting off it.

Greta Thunberg went to the States on a solar powered yacht but not many of us have access to options like that (or would fancy it even if we had!).

A key question we can ask is, do we really need or want to make that trip? And when we do fly, how can we reduce our impact?

When looking at our carbon footprint from travel, don’t forget we have two feet. When we are lying by a pool in sunshine, we may not be heating the house or travelling by car so we don’t have the footprint of being at home.

Flying smarter

Simple sums tell us that if we halve our air travel we halve our emissions. Less frequent trips but for longer duration and within shorter distance is a reasonable approach. Perhaps you can alternate foreign holidays and staycations.

Most of the emissions come from take-off and landing so avoiding connecting flights helps. A destination with a direct flight from Shannon is always the greener option. When there isn’t one, a direct flight from Dublin is preferable to a connecting flight in London.

You get extra greenie points by using public transport and there are hourly buses from Ennis to Dublin airport with Dublin Coach.

Choosing the airline carefully can make a difference. More fuel efficient aircraft, how airlines manage their flights and the fuel they use have a big impact. Ryanair has a modern fleet with among the lowest emissions in the industry and say they indirectly reduce fuel use in other ways.

For business travel, the enforced lack of travel due to the pandemic showed that it wasn’t as essential as was thought. Investing in video conferencing facilities could save time, money and emissions. Almost half of UK companies surveyed expect to fly less in future.

Break the quick breaks

City breaks abroad are a great way to expand the mind and get a quick recharge. Quick hop breaks are also popular for stag and hen parties and weddings– cheap drink, food and accommodation being the big attraction. But think before you book. The carbon emissions from flying for a weekend in Barcelona are the same as a two-week holiday in Spain.

Another reason for quick trips is getting together with family and friends. This is important for our social connections and often essential for family who need support.

A bit of planning can help to reduce the impact. If several family members live in different places, one larger gathering with everyone – possibly in a neutral location – may avoid several two-way visits. Another option is to tie a visit in with your annual holiday.

And if you travel for business, it’s good to really question the need. Maybe less frequent but longer trips would work well too.

Getting the boat

Up until the nineties, air travel was simply too expensive for most people. Travel abroad was usually by boat and train. We didn’t realise we were taking the most climate friendly option – and it certainly didn’t seem the most attractive option when changing trains in Crewe at 4am in the morning.

Is going by boat to the UK or the continent a lot more climate friendly? If you are traveling by public transport, it is. If you are travelling by car, it depends on the distances, your car and how many of you are piled in.

There are lots of carbon calculators online where you can check the most climate friendly option. Going by boat always takes longer and is often more expensive, so it’s not for everyone or for every trip.

And when you’re there

Climate friendly travel doesn’t start and stop with getting there. You can reduce your impact in lots of ways. Perhaps you can rent an electric car or simply a bike. Or stay in environmentally friendly accommodation.

Lying on the beach for a week is gentle on the climate, but if you love to drive around to see everything, think about how you do it.

Consider visitors to Ireland. Some might drive to the Giant’s Causeway one day and the Cliffs of Moher the next.

Others might instead stay within Clare, and enjoy the Burren, Loop Head, Lough Derg and plenty of other places with a fraction of the driving. So when we visit other countries – think local.

The bigger picture

As with most climate related issues, it’s easier to take individual action when pricing and convenience support those choices – much of that comes down to government policy. Staying in Ireland would be more attractive if budget holiday accommodation was readily available and costs were brought down in other ways.

We will see the price of flights increase by 2027 as the EU remove allowances that airlines currently have, but not to a level that will deter most. It might not seem it when you are booking tickets but air travel is really cheap.

It does not reflect the true cost of jet fuel and the cost to the environment. It took about 200 million years for plants to form oil and we are burning it 2 million times faster than it took to form. A plane carrying us to southern Europe for a €50 ticket burns about 5 tonnes of fuel.

Several airlines offer carbon offsetting, where you pay the equivalent of your carbon emissions. This funds schemes like renewable energy and afforestation projects.

However reducing travel is more effective than any carbon offset scheme. Some schemes also have unwanted effects like taking agricultural land in countries that need it. Funding a local environmental organisation might bring a more direct benefit, one it’s easier for you to be sure of.

There is hope

The recent IPCC report says that the climate damage can be controlled if we take steps this decade to reduce carbon emissions. But we need to take a lot of steps and fast.

Instead of shutting out the bad news, it is found that we feel better if we acknowledge it and do something, however small. The more you fly, the more you can reduce or change how you fly to make a substantial reduction to your carbon footprint.

If the annual holiday or family visit abroad is a highlight of your year, eliminating it is probably not a realistic option for you. But small changes can make a difference.

• Take fewer flights, especially short breaks
• Avoid connecting flights
• Avoid or reduce long haul flights
• Select environmentally efficient airlines
• Use public transport to airports and at destination
• Support eco-friendly tourism at your destination
• Fund local environmental organisations as your carbon offset

The climate impact is raised very occasionally by my clients. Flying is usually the only practical choice due to time and cost.

I work with local companies at the destinations who have made significant moves over the years to reduce the carbon footprint and give back to the community.

Initiatives include buying directly from local craftspeople or supporting women in traditionally male jobs like tour drivers. Closer destinations and fewer connections also helps reduce the impact.

Corporate travel has reduced significantly due to Covid. I expect some travel will be replaced by online meetings in future, but not all. Corporate travel can be gruelling with long days, so they haven’t been doing it for fun, but because they have to.

The airline you use can make a difference. The pandemic has hastened the demise of old, dirty and noisy aircraft. Airlines like Ryanair and Turkish Airlines take the opportunity of low prices now to place orders for new generation aircraft that are quieter and more fuel efficient.

Leisure travel has been increasing over the years, and rebounded after previous setbacks. I expect the same will happen this time.

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