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Im a travel writer, but Im not going to fly any more

Jumping on a plane was part of the day job, but after years of flying around the world, I've decided to live a life on the rails.
Jumping on a plane was part of the day job, but after years of flying around the world, I've decided to live a life on the rails.

OPINION: I'm trying to give up taking the plane to work. That's why I turned down an invitation to fly to New York last month to write about the maiden voyage of a cruise ship. A cruise ship with a helicopter on board.

I have friends who will tell me I'm mad for not going. And I have friends who will tell me I'm mad for having taken this long to realise I shouldn't be going. I know now which ones I should be listening to.

I'm old enough to have worked in newspapers during the transition from pages set in lead to pages scrolled on screen; I learnt basic code to build my first website. I've long prided myself on being an early adopter of (useful) new technology. But I have to confess to being a shamefully late adaptor to climate change issues.

 I've walked in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia, run in Kenya, cycled in the Catskills, taken trains across Australia and small boats on rivers in New York and Nicaragua.
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I've walked in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia, run in Kenya, cycled in the Catskills, taken trains across Australia and small boats on rivers in New York and Nicaragua.

I didn't fasten a seat belt on a plane until I was 18. Since the Nineties, though, I've been clocking up the air miles. I've walked in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia, run in Kenya, cycled in the Catskills, taken trains across Australia and small boats on rivers in New York and Nicaragua - but in each case the journey began and ended with a flight (if not several). Often at Heathrow airport in London - the largest single source of carbon emissions in the United Kingdom.

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An economy-class return flight from London to New York emits an estimated 0.67 tons of C02 per passenger, according to the calculator from the International Civil Aviation Organisation, an agency of the United Nations. That's equivalent to 11 per cent of the average annual emissions for someone in the United Kingdom, or about the same as those caused by someone living in Ghana over a year. It's time to mend my profligate ways.

 I won't stop travelling. But I'm now, professionally, aiming to be a wingless wanderer.
ISTOCK
I won't stop travelling. But I'm now, professionally, aiming to be a wingless wanderer.

Ten years ago, in the first of two Telegraph anthologies on rail journeys I edited, I did briefly mention that the resurgence in train travel owed something to "global warming and the realisation of the growing contribution being made to it by aircraft emissions". But my advocacy of trains over planes had less to do with the train's being a smaller generator of carbon and more to do with its being a greater generator of stories. A journey in a passenger jet is likely to be as short on inspiration as on legroom; a necessary inconvenience best blotted out with film, book and headphones. 

Similarly, I've managed to blot out consideration of the cumulative depth of my carbon footprint. This year, I've finally woken up. I've been roused by a combination of factors: the Extinction Rebellion protests; the campaigning of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg; the BBC programme Climate Change: The Facts, presented by David Attenborough; and an interview I conducted in April with the writer Robert Macfarlane, whose latest book, Underland, is concerned with the "deep-time legacies" we humans are leaving on our planet. Macfarlane told me he would be travelling shortly to the US. He had also been invited several times to visit Australia and New Zealand to talk about his work; he couldn't countenance it because of the carbon footprint.

I recycle all I can, avoid single-use plastics and I'm eating less meat, but I've generated a hell of a lot of carbon myself. And it's not as if people haven't been pointing out to me why I need to stop. One was the writer and television presenter Nicholas Crane, whom I worked with while I was on the staff of The Daily Telegraph. He decided in the mid-Nineties, after careful consideration of the science, that he ought to do all he could to avoid using aircraft. In a piece for Telegraph Travel in 2006 he wrote: "I took flights to South America, to Africa, to the Caribbean. I once flew to Australia for just a week. The articles I wrote tended to fizz with enthusiasm for the places I had been investigating. I don't know how many readers booked flights after reading these articles. As I type these words, it's impossible not to be wracked with guilt."

I know the feeling.

Crane's piece was commissioned in response to a declaration by Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London at the time, that we had a moral obligation to be environment-friendly and that jetting off on holiday was "a symptom of sin". It's a piece I would have read closely before it appeared in the paper. But there's reading and there's heeding. 

I've been looking at that piece again online. I'm struck by this passage in particular: "Among the people I know well, the 'non-adaptors' to climate change are well-informed adults. I am absolutely mystified by this. It is no longer possible to claim that there is no connection between human activity and climate change."

Thirteen years ago, Crane concluded: "There isn't any option but to give up all non-essential flying." In June this year, that declaration received support from an unexpected quarter. In an open letter, the Dutch airline KLM invited all air travellers to take "responsible decisions about flying". On its website, it advised them to pack light, and to think about compensating for their C02 emissions. But it didn't stop there. 

It admitted "aviation is far from sustainable today, even if we have been - and are - working hard to improve every aspect of our business." It suggested that its potential customers consider avoiding flying - by making use of video conferences or taking the train.

Maybe this is a canny marketing strategy, but if so, it's a strategy devised in response to inescapable scientific truth. In a report last October, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which brings together leading scientists, warned that we have only a dozen years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5C, beyond which even half a degree will significantly worsen the risks of drought, floods, extreme heat and poverty for hundreds of millions of people. 

"It's a line in the sand, and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now," said Debra Roberts, a co-chair of the working group on impacts. KLM seems to have got the message. When an airline admits that flying is "far from sustainable", and advises you to consider other options, you've got to take notice. 

So I am. I can't give up all flying; I have far-flung family I might need to reach in a hurry. But I do want to avoid taking the plane to work.

That will entail missing out on places I'm still keen to write about, such as the Sea of Cortez, off Mexico. I've longed to go there since I read John Steinbeck's account of a 6440km geography field trip he made with his biologist friend Ed Ricketts (the model for Doc in Cannery Row), on which they enjoyed "a real tempest in our small teapot minds".

There'll be tempests enough nearer home, as I've discovered recently on first encounters with the Cairngorms and the Hebrides. After Northern Ireland, where I was born and grew up, Spain is the country closest to my heart and the one in Europe where I've spent most time as a writer. I can get there by train.

You could argue that, if I turn down a commission that entails flying, another writer will take it; that I won't be making any difference. But at least I will be being honest with myself.

I could carry on flying, and try to offset emissions. But even in the best offsetting schemes, the carbon emitted today won't be compensated-for for years, by which time a lot more damage will have been done. According to the International Air Transport Association, aviation currently contributes about two per cent of the world's global carbon emissions, and the association predicts that air passenger numbers will have doubled to 8.2 billion by 2037.

As I write, emails are popping up with calls to "Follow Chile's new Route of Parks", "See the fall colours of Michigan", "Make the most of your time on Earth" by visiting Antarctica. They're not for me. I won't stop travelling. But I'm now, professionally, aiming to be a wingless wanderer.

The Telegraph

Source : Stuff.co.nz

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