It’s time for flying to become the new smoking by Dorothea Hilhorst

The recently published IPCC report paints a grim picture of the future if carbon emissions are not immediately and fundamentally reversed. It is now necessary to focus on our own contribution to the mess that we’ve made, Dorothea Hilhorst argues. She focuses on the flying habits of development practitioners and academics, asking whether flying should become the new smoking and how we can address our problematic flying behaviour.


Flying is an important contributor to global warming, 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 global warming 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—the UN, NGOs, and my own world of  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 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.

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.


TheaAbout the author:

Dorothea Hilhorst is Professor of Humanitarian Aid and Reconstruction at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University Rotterdam. See other articles by her here and here and here and here

4 comments

  1. I would add … time also for eating less meat and investing in renewable energy.

    If the Dutch would eat 40% less meat, the Netherlands would immediately reach its CO2 emissions reduction target.

    • Good additions, and all super relevant!
      I know some people believe that vegetarian lifestyle compensates for flying, in Holland popularised by Arjen Lubach. Very different ‘truths’ are prevailing about this, but the one I read said that one return flight from NL to China equals the damage of five years of full meat consumption.

  2. What an utterly appalling article. It’s so easy just to sit and critise and blame others for your plight. My advice would be to move. You are choosing to stay where you are and not take any positive action. I don’t

  3. […] It’s time for flying to become the new smoking By Dorothea Hilhorst, ISS Blog, 17 October 2018 Flying is an important contributor to global warming, 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. […]

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