What’s the harm in flying? Key messages and recording now available

A big thank you to all who attended our webinar, ‘What’s the harm in flying?’. We were delighted to welcome Dr Sally Cairns from the Institute of Transport Studies at the University of Leeds, and our trustee and climate psychology expert Rebecca Nestor, to explore the environmental impact of flying alongside its psychological appeal and emotional power.

For those who were unable to attend, you can access the recording on our YouTube channel and view the slides here: Dr Sally Cairns, ‘What’s the harm in flying’ and Rebecca Nestor, ‘The Psychology of Flying’.

We have highlighted some of the key facts and messages below (you can find more detail in the recording and slides).

Dr Sally Cairns, ‘What’s the harm in flying?’


  • Aviation does matter for climate change – particularly in the UK.
  • Pre-pandemic, in the UK, there were high levels of growth, much of which was travel by UK residents (particularly frequent flyers) making leisure trips abroad.
  • Technology and international schemes may be important, but they won’t substantially reduce aviation emissions in the near future. Instead, we need to stop airport expansion, introduce fairer pricing, and support diversification and alternatives.
  • During the pandemic, there have been a wide variety of trends. Support for domestic tourism is a potential policy focus.
  • Individuals have a role to play, not just in their own choices, but in relation to the policies that they support.

How important is flying for climate change?

Whilst globally flying accounts for 2.5% of CO2 emissions, it is growing fast (30% between 2013 and 2018) and has non-CO2 effects which exacerbate the climate impact. And it is a particular problem for the UK:

  • CO2 from UK international air travel is equivalent to about 10% of national CO2 emissions.
  • the UK is third in the world in terms of CO2 emissions from passenger aviation (after the US and China).
  • UK residents make more international air trips than residents of any other country.

On a personal level, just one return flight can make a significant difference to a personal carbon footprint, e.g. up to 2.7 tCO2e for a return flight to New York.

What is the nature of UK air travel – why are people flying?

International leisure flights of UK residents make up the biggest proportion of UK flights, accounting for about 47%.

And of international trips by UK residents, about two thirds are holidays, about 25% are visiting family and friends. International students have a relatively small impact: If international students all took three return flights a year, this would only be equivalent to about 1% of flights (2019 figures).

Over 75% of international air trips are to Europe, and Spain alone accounts for 25% – but long-haul trips may account for about two-thirds of passenger kilometres.

Numbers of passengers travelling through UK airports each year have been growing from about 180m in 2000 to about 300m in 2018, driven by a big increase in international leisure.

Who flies most?

In a given year, typically, about 50% of people don’t fly, and 15% of people take 70% of flights (‘frequent flyers’ include people who fly just 2 or 3 times a year). A lot of growth in flying is from people who are already flying flying more often.

There is also a strong relationship with income:

  • Of the 20% households with the lowest income, 70% don’t fly.
  • Of the 20% households with the highest income, 70% do fly.

What about the tourism deficit? UK residents spend a lot more abroad than overseas residents spend in the UK, and that gap has been getting bigger over time – in 2019, it was about £34bn.

What are the possible solutions for reducing aviation emissions?

Technology and international solutions are important but won’t be enough to make the immediate and large-scale impact needed.

Key solutions are:

  • Limit airport expansion.
  • A fairer pricing system e.g. VAT on tickets, fuel tax, frequent flyer levy and / or distance/ frequency charge. This is partly about relative pricing (e.g. flying compared to train).
  • Diversification and alternatives, e.g. promotion of domestic tourism, virtual and ‘mixed mode’ meetings, long-distance ‘slow’ travel (coaches, trains, sleeper trains), airport diversification e.g. leisure facilities, training and redeployment opportunities for aviation staff.

For any measures to work we first need political acceptance that the overall effect will be to reduce growth. By contrast, currently government seems to be supporting a return to pre-pandemic trends.

Some recent trends that could be used to boost domestic tourism

  • Activities eg paddle boarding and e-biking
  • TV and film tourism
  • Desire for selfie opportunities
  • Multi-generational family holidays

What might you do to mitigate the impact of flying?

  • Go less often, stay longer.
  • Go economy class. Possibly take as little luggage as possible.
  • Offsetting – probably better than nothing but it’s not a long-term solution: there’s not capacity to offset everything that needs offsetting; and there have been concerns about certain schemes.
  • Check out the performance of the different airlines for your route, using online carbon calculators such as Atmosfair.

Rebecca Nestor: The psychology of flying

Why we fly – a paradox? There are a huge number of people who are concerned about climate change and who still fly. So concern for the environment doesn’t necessarily correlate with reduction in flying.

There are several aspects to this:

  • Identity: this can include a sense of connectedness with the global community.
  • Psychological defences: e.g. the sense that one flight won’t make much difference.
  • Status: e.g. people might think you’re ‘poor’ or ‘puritanical’
  • Belonging and love: many have loved ones far away; and conversations about travel are important to social bonding.
  • Need, freedom and choice: many of us feel our travel choices are not negotiable.

But the social norms are changing …

People are cutting down and public support for change has risen since Covid. And we know that our examples help others change.

What can we do as individuals?

Some suggestions:

  • Acknowledge the pain and loss associated with flying less or not flying at all.
  • Talk to friends and family and lead by example.
  • Pledge not to fly for a year through Flightfree UK – helping to build the message that not flying is socially acceptable.
  • Support and follow organisations like Aviation Environment Federation or Airport Watch.
  • Join local groups protesting airport expansion.

We will look in more detail at some of these suggestions over the coming months, to help us all reflect further and contribute to the solutions as much as we can. If you have ideas or would like to get involved, please get in touch: julia.patrick@lcon.org.uk .