Want to travel but not sure how to navigate flying in a warming world? Here's a guide on personal actions, systemic change, and things you can do immediately.
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
How can we travel sustainably? Our goal is to inspire you to be more mindful of flying. It’s not to “stop flying” necessarily (although that’d be great) — it’s to really understand what we’re doing by “catching flights not feelings”.
Here’s what we’ll cover step-by-step:
We’re going to unleash a whole can of worms about the complexities of air travel in a warming world. We should warn you: there are a LOT of complexities. We’ll try to fly through this as smoothly as possible. Ready to take off?
🎯 Action step 1 of 4: READ — Let's start by looking at a few articles together.
It’s no surprise that air travel has stirred conversations about climate change. Here’s a summary of the ethics of plane travel. It’s linked to articles that will help you deepen your learning journey.
Is air travel really such a big deal?
The aviation industry is estimated to contribute around 5% to global warming (2.4% if you’re only talking CO2 emissions). So, when you compare it to other industries, it can seem like a weird, low-impact place to focus.
Why is air travel considered so harmful?
Here’s the thing: air travel is the MOST harmful decision we, as individuals, can make. Everyday people like us can’t always choose what chemicals are used in our clothing, what farms make our food, or what materials buildings are made of—but we can choose to fly. Taking even one long-haul flight generates more carbon emissions than the average person in dozens of countries around the world produces in a whole year.
The only reason flying doesn’t contribute more to climate change is that most people aren’t able to do it.
Only 3% of people IN THE WORLD are estimated to fly regularly. If everyone in the world took just one long-haul flight per year, aircraft emissions would far exceed the US’s entire CO2 emissions.
This is why we love the term “mindful flying” — it’s time for us (the people who can and do fly) to think about our privilege and how we can make different choices. Especially since we’re the ones doing the most harm. What if we could be part of the solution instead of the problem?
The real surprise: climate change is harming planes’ ability to fly.
Planes can’t get off the ground as quickly on our warming planet. If we don’t figure out how to travel more sustainably, the decision may get made for us.
While plane travel is a small segment of CO2 emissions, it’s one of the most harmful things we can do as individuals.
🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 1 of 4: READ.
🎯 Action step 2 of 4: LISTEN — we'll watch a short video or listen to a podcast to further expand on our topic.
It turns out that oil and gas companies WANT us to feel super guilty about the flights we’re taking… so that we’ll be too burned out to dismantle these systems.
The YouTube Channel, Our Changing Climate, does a really great job of breaking down complex topics into easy-to-understand issues. This video on flight emissions is no exception.
You’ll learn that:
One thing we wish the video mentioned is that when we stop taking flights, and when we actually talk about these decisions, it does make a difference. We would like everyone to understand that we have a significant circle of influence — friends, family, coworkers, etc. — and we have SO much power that we often forget about.
🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 2 of 4: LISTEN.
🎯 Action step 3 of 4: ACT — Now it's time to do something. Let's go!
We know giving up flying isn’t always the easiest decision, but taking a small step towards sustainable travel shouldn’t be impossible. Here’s a roundup of concepts and tips that can save carbon while increasing joy:
1. Understand the impact of your flights.
Know what your baseline is. You can calculate the impact of ONE flight you’re going to take this year. The calculator in this article lets you plug in your airports and tells you about your climate impact.
2. Make a flight budget with “love miles” included.
This approach is inspired by Dr. Kim Nicholas in her book Under the Sky We Make. Dr. Nicholas spoke about this in a fireside chat with our community too — she decided to pretty much stop flying, with the exception of some “love miles” for flights to see her friends and family across oceans.
You could set a budget in terms of miles, carbon emissions, number of trips, or anything else. The key here is to not beat yourself up over exceeding a budget — the goal should be to think deeply about why you’re flying!
3. Talk about it, especially at work.
W keep saying “talking about climate change is the most important thing we can do,” but hey, we’re called Soapbox Project for a reason. Encourage your company to cut out business travel. We already know that remote work is possible for many jobs, so any data you can find to help your company meet revenue and carbon targets is always a win for the big boss.
4. Replace one flight with a train or road trip and compare the differences.
There’s so much potential for fun (and emissions reduction) with this option! Plus, you can enjoy the scenery.
5. Join the slow travel movement.
Think about cutting out short-haul flights. These are usually defined as 3-hour long journeys, and you can drive or take a train if possible. You can also stay longer at a specific destination! Instead of a weekend trip from the United States to Europe, you could do a weekend road trip. And then spend a month in Italy when you go later in the year.
6. Follow travel reporters and accounts who focus flight-free travel.
Carbon Jacked on TikTok is great, and we recommend following nylah on Twitter (who describes herself as a “travel writer who doesn’t fly). This Afar article on flying more thoughtfully is a must-read too.
Show your support, too — tell them you’re inspired by flight-free travel! If you follow any travel influencers who seem to be unnecessarily wasteful about plane travel, it doesn’t hurt to send a message like the following: “Hey, love your content, would love to see more plane-free trip inspiration so we can travel more sustainably!” Show the people what you want!
Through these actions, you can be a part of the solution instead of the problem.
🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 3 of 4: ACT.
Before we go any further, it's time for you to pledge your commitment. It takes less than 30 seconds to pledge and we can bother you about it in a friendly way, so we can hold each other accountable. Pledge here!
🎯 Action step 4 of 4: REFLECT — what can you commit to? What fresh perspectives can we look at?
We can reframe what travel means to us. Here, we have a very simple (and fun) exercise for you: a sustainable travel game.
The idea of this game is to revisit how you think about travel. The instructions are very simple:
Tag us on Instagram @soapboxproject so we can repost your awesome bingo card.
Hint: You should already have the diagonal 2/5ths done with the free space and after you read this slow travel article.
Good news: If you’re feeling like 💩 because of your flight decisions, let’s remember that you have SO much control over what travel looks like! For us, that looks like replacing as many of our planned flights as possible with train trips. Let’s keep brainstorming together.
🏁 Checkpoint: This is the end of action step 4 of 4: REFLECT.
Check out our membership community for more resources like free weekly events with social justice experts, sustainable product discounts, pre-written email templates, a social impact job board, and in-person hangouts with new friends. Thanks for taking action with Soapbox Project!
Get our free bite-sized climate action plans before you go!