Is Flying the new Smoking? If so, should aid workers stop flying?

Guest post from Dorothea Hilhorst of the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University. She suggested this just after I had got off a plane to Mexico, so I figured I had to publish it….

Update: this post has generated so much interest that we’ve put up an opinion poll here – please complete it after you’ve read this post.

Flying is an important contributor to global heating, and by far one of the most complicated. There are no signs that flying will be reduced and technical solutions to reduce carbon emissions are a long way off and not very feasible. Unlike cars, electric planes are not an option – flying a plane would require its entire space to be filled with batteries.

The IPCC report that came out last week is absolutely terrifying. The possibility of retaining global heating within 1.5 degrees is rapidly disappearing and we are facing a heating of 2 or even 3 degrees. The report contains convincing evidence of the devastation of that extra degree on biodiversity, sea level rise, disaster events, the economy, coral reefs, and so on.

With regards to flying, governments should get their acts together and start taxing air travel, while investing in alternatives, especially a huge expansion of fast train networks. But in the meantime, I think organisations and their employees should also take some level of responsibility.

The IPCC report comes out in the midst of a scandal over the irresponsible ‘flying behaviour’ of Erik Solheim, the director of the United Nations Environment Programme, who travels 80% of his time. In the coverage of the scandal, most attention centred on his flying for private purposes. This reflects a general view that private flying is a luxury, but business-related travel is just what needs to be done. But is that really true? I’m pretty sure that huge cuts could easily be made in business-related air travel.

There is now a call for environmental guidelines within the UN.  What, only now??? Shocking, right? But let’s be honest, the whole aid and development world – UN, NGOs, and my own world of the academic departments and development studies – is shamefully late in taking responsibility. For decades, I have not given my flying behaviour much thought either, and found it normal or at best a necessary evil to hop on a plane for every piece of research, conference or seminar.

I will not go into name-shaming, but I know for a fact that some of the front runner developmental institutes and think tanks are not using carbon offsetting for their flights, and have no policy on reducing air travel. Since a few years back, I have tried to reduce my own air travel. I still have an oversized ecological footprint, but I fly significantly less than I used to.

I also – cautiously – try to bring up the topic in conversations with people I work with.  Here some experiences:

1) when preparing a lecture at a development institute in the UK: “Sorry, we are short on budget this year, would you

mind taking the plane rather than the train?”

2) A director of a development department in the Netherlands: “Sorry, we are too busy we will consider introducing a policy next year”.

3) A consultant coming over for an assignment: “Really, is there now a train connecting London to Amsterdam in less than four hours? I didn’t know”.

Two further defences are that people start laughing when I raise this issue, because they consider air-travel to be at the core of who we are; or that they point at real polluters, usually big business or an American president.  Good points, but my reading of the IPCC report is that all of us need to step up the effort: governments, business, institutions, employees and consumers.

I also know many people that refuse to carbon offset because some offset programmes are open to criticism, or

This OK, Thea?

because they find this tokenistic. However, offsetting is a first step. While the IPCC focuses on the devastation of future temperature rises, it is absolutely clear that climate change is already wreaking havoc, especially for poor people in poor countries.

More droughts, floods, fires. More hunger, poverty, and distress migration. It is a core principle in environmental politics that polluters should pay. There are a number of offset schemes that take this into account and use the money they generate for programs that combine livelihoods with mitigation of carbon emission, for example by protecting the vast peat areas in the world that contain huge levels of carbon. If only for this reason, a simple measure such as offsetting every flight you take should not be too much to ask.

But compensation programmes can only ever be a first small step. Next comes sharply reducing the number of flights we take.

Of course, there are already signs of these changes, and best practices are rapidly evolving. I have the feeling that NGOs may be ahead of the game compared to universities and research institutes. We academics may even be worse than the United Nations or some companies. Some obvious things we could do:

  • Some NGOs (like Oxfam – see below) have ruled that travel below xx hours cannot use air travel. I have not yet heard of a single University that sets such rules.
  • No more face-to-face job interviews, where applicants are invited to fly in so that the personal chemistry can be tested.
  • Organise international conferences of study associations every three or four years rather than every year.
  • Get used to teaching and seminars through Skype
  • Introduce a rule that planes must be booked well in advance to avoid that the only available or affordable ticket comes with three stops and huge detours.
  • Invest more in identifying and fostering local experts to avoid international consultancies.
How far can we get in 8 hours?

I’m sure there are plenty more examples, and would love to hear suggestions. Taxing carbon use and investing in green transport systems like fast trains will definitely help to reduce air travel. What we really need, though, is a change of mentality. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Let’s get ready for an era where flying is the new smoking. It won’t be long before people who fly have some awkward explaining to do over the Friday afternoon drinks after work.

Here’s the link to the poll again. And in case you’re interested, I dug out the Oxfam travel policy, which says the following: ‘For travel within the UK or to parts of Europe directly served by Eurostar, rail travel must become the norm.  No flights are permitted for travel where the destination is reachable within eight hours door to door.’

This post was simultaneously published on the blog of ISS on global development and social justice.

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30 Responses to “Is Flying the new Smoking? If so, should aid workers stop flying?”
    • Me too. If there is a train, avoid the plane.

      Anyway, while we are waiting for a huge expansion of fast train networks, it would be interesting if we have some ‘help’ to buy electric cars for short distances (less than 3 or 4 hours). Or more car sharing!

  1. Jeremy Pack

    For me you left out that aviation is responsible (random google facts) for 4-9% “the total climate change impact of human activity.” That would have been useful context to your thinking

    However if you want a new smoking go for cars or vehicles if you can call them that have engine sizes greater than 2l. The sudden and selfish increase of “tanks” on the road is a much more visible reminder that a certain section of society just don’t care.
    Please somebody tell me the impact of banning >2l cars world wide. How does that compare to airtravel?

    Secondly my experience of one company for most of my life in the IT industry is that cost has driven us away from flying. In my global role I never met boss, everything was by SkyPe (or similar). Travelling is such a waste of time and money for business we just did not do it.

    And yes any country where train travel is more expensive than flying (and car) has got it wrong and needs to wake up immediately. (And that is the UK)

    My vote: the new smoking is the tanks on the road

  2. Fiona Remnant

    NGOs are not only guilty of flying their own staff around the world, but also outsourcing their carbon footprint by hiring consultants from their home countries to fly out and conduct evaluations or other research. More emphasis needs to be put on training, and using ‘local’ consultants to do work in-country – there is a vast untapped pool of talented post-graduates in most countries!

  3. RaVienna Wicks

    There is nothing called an “aid worker”.

    The bluffocracy: how Britain ended up being run by eloquent chancers
    Britain has become hooked on a culture of inexpertise

    … Most bluffers are made, not born — and the archetypical bluffer’s degree is, of course, Philosophy, Politics and Economics. It’s taught at a number of universities across the UK, but is most strongly associated with Oxford. Students are marinated in an adversarial university tutorial system which favours the quick thinker over the deep rival. A standard setup for a politics tutorial, for example, is to have one student read their essay while the other is encouraged to attack it. If they don’t, their own work will come under far closer scrutiny. …

    James Ball is a journalist. Andrew Greenway is a former senior civil servant. They studied PPE at Oxford at the same time. Their book, Bluffocracy, has just been released.,_politics_and_economics

  4. Part of this issue is still the inadequacy of alternatives. I abhor flying yet my best efforts to avoid it, working in development, are rarely successful. It’s easy to blame it on the institutions, or old fashioned ways of doing things, but we still cannot underestimate the effectiveness of face to face work. On a recent assignment, one week of face to face time catalyzed work that had been dawdling on the margins for the better part of three months. I’m also a bit skeptical of online training…ever watch a room full of folks listening to an online session (a webinar for example), if a quarter of them can more or less pay attention I would consider that success.
    Maybe I’m doing it wrong. Or maybe, as another commenter mentioned, we need to switch to working local. Eat local, work local? It’s a thorny one…

    • I feel mischievous: Extreme anti-frackers in the UK who are completely against fracking are unswayed by the counter-argument that renewables are not yet ready to reliably take over from fossil fuels. They respond “Well, if we make it impossible for you to use fracking you might get your finger out and speed up on renewables!”
      By this logic – which many are emphatic about – it would be appropriate to impose immediate restrictions, driven by civil disobedience, on NGO flights as NGOs will then be forced to find alternative.
      I would maintain you can’t have it both ways, though many do.

  5. Very timely. I do a once a year very long flight home that probably generates more CO2 than all my other activities combined.
    Carbon offsetting is something I would really like some help with, finding my ways through the maze of options and opinions. Can anyone help with advice on good websites that provide an objective and informed overview?

  6. Patti Whaley

    Good luck. I totally agree with your point, but everyone thinks THEIR work is so important. I used to work at a sustainability charity, and I tried to get the management team to reduce the amount of *business class* flying that they did (business class was roughly 3x the carbon impact of economy class). You wouldn’t believe the pushback I got. The eventual policy said that flying economy was preferred except in “extraordinary” circumstances and it soon turned out that “extraordinary” was the new normal. It made me quite cynical, I’m afraid.

    • Lacey W

      Excellent point on the connection to the perceived importance of our work, and the ‘extraordinary’ type narratives we so often attach to it. Cognitive dissonance and utter lack of reflexivity on our practices in context of the value and necessity of our work *in the way that we do it* is shameful. I am in academics and can only conclude that scholars who fly to climate change conferences may not have read their own work, or are grossly unconcerned with ethics. I too have become extremely dismayed by this.

  7. Diarmid

    Finally! This has been a pressing problem for at least a decade and it says something for the power of bad habits that it even still needs to be debated (and I’m every very much one of the guilty, having flown all over the place on often dubious pretexts).

    More objectively, it’s hard to know how an NGO might judge fairly whether a particular flight is “essential” or not, since everybody’s work is always essential, but some simple interim measures could include:

    1. Giving staff or teams a carbon budget for flying which shrinks by a small amount each year, so that they gradually get used to flying less. Maybe some NGOs already do this but the ones I’ve worked for don’t.

    2. Ban 90 per cent of conference trips, especially to standing-room-only global circuses like Financing for Development. Yes, conference trips were good for networking back in the days of Western hegemony over the discourse of development, and one could nurture the illusion that the right conversations with other stakeholders in some hotel bar in (NAME OF COUNTRY HERE) might unlock a complex problem. That illusion must be pretty much dead by now.

    3. As other commenters have suggested, much more stringency over fly-in visits to developing countries by NGO folk from the Global North. If the stay in country is less than a few days, it probably isn’t going to have much lasting effect. Of course it’s not just Northern NGO types who like a free work trip to a picturesque destination but I figure that we’ve had more than our fair shot at global travel already. I know I have.

    It’s easier to lay down these kinds of rules than to break the bad habits of a lifetime and actually obey but if NGOs aren’t going to, then who on earth is? As with everything to do with climate change, it needs to be tackled with determination at the level of organisations, not left to the conflicted consciences of individuals.

  8. Dear Duncan,

    Could you please make the video’s downloadable on the course “Make Positive Change Happen”. I take the train tomorrow and would like to work on the course, while the mobile coverage is patchy.

    Kind regards,


  9. Arnaldo Pellini

    Great post. When I read it I remembered that more of less on the day when the IPCC report was published, which says that we have about 12 years to sort things out, I got an invitation to a two days meeting to be held 9500km from where I live. Some meetings are most important than others and require face to face time, but not all meetings are super important and alternatives like video conference can be used. Let’s see if in 5 years from now we will have better video conferencing technologies which will help with making us feeling to be in the room more than they do today. Another idea I got from the article is that in the near future networking-types of research organisations with staff and associates in different countries will be more the norm than they are today. They are emerging as think net or think tanks networks, and policy hubs, but they are still relatively new. But I think the future is bright for these organisations and, among other things, they can contribute to reduce emissions from air travels.

  10. Thanks Dorothea and Duncan for opening up this issue. It’s something I’ve been concerned about for some time (and guilty of). I’m a director with Tearfund and we have a flight policy that is pretty good though I’m sure there’s room for improvement (something we’re looking at through an internal group called Walk the Talk, which I chair). We’re not allowed to fly within the UK or Europe (and if there are exceptional circumstances for Europe then we have to get that signed off by our line manager) and we offset all our flights through a really good little charity called Climate Stewards. Long-haul flights are discouraged though of course they happen a lot. We still need to work on communicating the policy more and making sure people stick with it. But it’s something we’re very aware of in general. Thank you again.

    • Barbora

      Dear Ruth, thanks for sharing the experience of your organisation! Is there a chance that you would be willing to share your policy with us? We are a Czech-based international humanitarian NGO People in Need. Recently introduced environmental policy and now taking steps to implement it- including updated rules for air travel. We are interested to see how other NGOs are dealing with this. We have decided to start offsetting all unavoidable flights but with offsetting being a slightly controversial issue in itself we are being careful about setting up the system for this. Thanks for any experience you might share! Barbora

  11. Matthew Van Geest

    Duncan and Thea – interesting topic. One of the assumptions is that by “aid worker” we automatically mean “western/white/European/North American.” I’m hoping that the localization agenda of the Grand Bargain might, as one of its potential positive effects, have the positive result of reducing air travel? But maybe I’m being overly optimistic.

  12. Gerrit Stegehuis

    Ghent University published a policy to reduce flying a few months ago. A list of 60 cities has been compiled for which flying is no longer offered as an option when people have to go there; these cities can be reached by train within 6 hours. There is another list of 20 cities (to be reached within 8 hours) for which train or bus will be offered as the first option when booking a trip.
    (but it is in Dutch)

  13. Duncan Green

    Some thoughts from bashful oxfam colleagues who want to remain anonymous:
    – No flying (or less) won’t really take into effect until Oxfam has invested more in countries and regions for effective meeting technology (“50% time lost waiting for connections and resolving ‘can you hear me now?’ questions!!!”)
    – Working across time zones (which you have to do if you don’t fly) has a cost that is often unrecognized: early morning/later night meeting interrupts parenting that happens in those hours (often negatively impacting women) and in general is unrecognized and unpaid; that time is never recovered and can really seep into an individual’s personal time
    – it really does take longer, if there is no face to face interaction, for things to get done. Screen shots do help but aren’t always sufficient, especially for those of us who need to talk through our thinking with drawing: again, going back to the need for better technology.

  14. Makenna

    Can we also talk about how many of the developing countries that are most affected by pollution are also majorly contributing to that pollution? Have you ever seen how much black exhaust vehicles in a major African city produce? Or those charcoal braziers? Burning piles of trash on the side of the road?

    Does occasional flying by NGOs really contribute more to pollution than that?

  15. Thanks a lot for raising this important issue. I think flying much less is crucial for any institution. Increasing advocacy from civil society is even more important – as Kattowice has shown. When we walk the talk, our advocacy will become more trustworthy and stronger.