Interview: The Man Who Gave Up Flying


Steve Westlake (1)

Could you give up flying to save the environment? Greta Thunberg famously doesn’t fly, and the ‘Greta effect’ is credited with inspiring a movement to reduce flying. Long distance rail companies are reporting a boom in business, and even some airlines are encouraging us take fewer flights for the sake of the environment.

I spoke to one man, researcher Steve Westlake, about his decision to quit the habit.

‘I stopped flying about four years ago, when I started getting really engaged in climate change.  I’d always had this awareness about flying, as most people do, but when I started to get really engaged I thought there must be some kind of masterplan somewhere to reduce emissions from flying. But there isn’t one. That came as quite a surprise.

‘I thought there must be some kind of masterplan somewhere to reduce emissions from flying. But there isn’t one.’

The amount of energy required to get a plane in the air is so great that there aren’t really any viable alternatives to fossil fuels. There’s a lot of attention on it, but actually there aren’t any solutions. There are efficiency improvements and offsetting which doesn’t actually reduce emissions – it plans for it in the future. That led me to make a connection and think , ‘well if I’m serious about this, I’m going to need to stop.’

I’d actually flown a lot in my life – I had a job where I was flying all the time. I felt partly that I had definitely used up my quota. I don’t really come from the attitude that everybody else should do this, because I have no idea about their circumstances, but certainly from a personal point of view, I felt like it was the right thing for me to do.

‘I’d actually flown a lot in my life…….. I felt that I had definitely used up my quota.’

I can’t see myself choosing to fly except for a very good reason. Partly it’s a bit of a thing now after four years – it becomes part of your identity, and it would feel hypocritical now for me to fly. But then, who knows…..maybe the technology will advance really fast, or maybe there’ll be a really good reason for me to fly. But at the moment I can’t see it.

I haven’t travelled overseas much recently. I’ve done a few trips by train. I’ve been to the south of France by train, and to Alicante in Spain by train. I’ve pretty much stopped, although I have travelled a lot previously. I don’t feel any particular loss. I’m in my mid-forties. For younger people, I wouldn’t want to say, ‘the right thing for you is to not fly,’ because you’re cutting off a whole load of opportunities which I’ve enjoyed.

‘I feel like, if like myself, you’ve flown a lot and used a lot of carbon budget, you should consider whether it’s right to keep doing that.’

I feel like, if like myself, you’ve flown a lot and you’ve had a lot of great experiences and you’ve benefited from it, and you’ve used a lot of carbon budget (we know that the carbon budget to stay below 1.5 or 2 degrees are really tight) then I feel if that’s the case……you should consider whether it’s right to keep doing that. Personally I think I should do this, but I’m not saying that people who’ve never really flown very much should do the same. But I feel that people who really fly a huge amount should look at the reasons for it.

Do you think there are any benefits from giving up flying?

Yes, in terms of travel, there are so many places within the UK that I haven’t been. It’s not as if my world is suddenly hugely restricted or I can’t have any new experiences. It is a kind of freedom. It releases you from things you feel you ‘should’ be doing. If I flew, I would think ‘I should be going to see my brother in the states. I should be going to all these interesting places that I could go to. I should be doing all these things which are part of the travel dream.’ It’s just the sort of normative thing that you’re expected to do. I don’t have that. There is a feeling of consistency that is reassuring in doing it.

Aviation emissions make up a relatively small proportion of global greenhouse gas emissions, so I’m wondering why you decided to target that.

Global emissions from aviation are around 2%. The actual global warming effect is considerably higher than that – probably double – because of where the emissions happen. They happen higher in the atmosphere and so the global warming effect is higher than the proportion of the emissions from aviation.

On an individual basis, it can be a very large part of your carbon footprint. If I’m looking at it personally, then I can’t really say that aviation emissions don’t matter. Emissions per person are very very unequal between different places in the world – the top 10% are responsible for a vastly disproportionate amount of global emissions. From a fairness point of view, I don’t really buy the fact that aviation itself is relatively small compared to everything else.

‘it can be a very large part of your individual  carbon footprint…..emissions per person are very very unequal between different places in the world’

I’m not saying everybody should stop flying. For me it wasn’t too hard. For other people, it will be much harder for all sorts of reasons – whether it’s that flying is more embedded in their lives, or they want to do it more, or it’s work, or family around the world, or all kinds of things. To people who say it is unrealistic to reduce flying, I would say that ‘what is your view on global warming? Is it a serious problem?’ Individual choices can influence other people.

Can you tell us more about your research?

My research is into social change – it is about how people change their behaviour in the social transitions to do with climate change.

The social side of tackling climate change in really interesting. It feels like the science, the technical side, is pretty well researched. We’ve got really detailed pathways for the technical side of climate change, but the social side is still unmapped.

I’m looking at leadership and the role of leading by example – I’m particularly interested in politicians.  People think that climate change is a distant problem – it’s in the future – and it’s distant from all of us. My hypothesis is that if people in influential positions, particularly politicians, take a particular stand on personal behaviour, I think that could be quite influential. That’s not to say everyone’s going to like it, but it feels like it’s worth a try.

‘People think that climate change is a distant problem – it’s in the future – and it’s distant from all of us.’

At the moment there are lots of plans for future emissions reductions. With flying, the plans are ‘we’ll offset emissions, so we’ll grow trees which will absorb emissions in the future, we’ll fund projects which will hopefully reduce emissions in the future, and in the future, hopefully technology will improve and flying will become less polluting.’ That’s all in the future. Climate change is such a pressing problem that we’ve got a climate emergency declared. So my position is: do what you can now as well as the future stuff.

There is an ongoing debate about whether responsibility should be loaded onto individuals. Clearly, the individual is not responsible for climate change. But there needs to be a move towards everyone taking responsibility together.

In terms of government policy,  that is still at quite a basic level. There are no plans to restrict aviation demand. That’s because of political and social reasons. Politicians are fearful of introducing something which might be really unpopular or being presented as being anti-freedom. It’s just a really sensitive area, for good reason. Freedoms are hard won and you don’t want to restrict them unless it’s for a very good reason.

‘Devastating wildlife loss is being driven by climate change…….surely if we have all that information we have a responsibility.’

My position is, we’ve got wonderful freedoms, especially in rich countries like the UK…….people in the upper stratas have got incredible freedom…..and I feel that with that comes responsibility. We have all this information about the impact of climate change which is going on already in many countries. Devastating wildlife loss is being driven by climate change, a lot of it. Surely if we have all that information we have a responsibility. Restricting freedoms has got to be part of that discussion.

Have you made any other sustainable lifestyle changes? 

I’ve gone pretty much vegan. I got rid of my car. That was also a huge relief actually, not having to drive anywhere. It has felt easy for me. Perhaps it would have been more difficult if I had had a family. It’s been a fairly easy thing to make these changes.

To find out more about Steve’s research see here.