After the bushfires of 2019, 38-year-old Clara* made a drastic decision: she swore off all air travel.
“I had a two-year-old who was coughing up blood from all the smoke in the air in Canberra,” she recalls. “My morning routine was opening up the air quality app to see whether we could go outside that day.”
Clara, who does not want to use her real name because she feels it may threaten her employment, already did everything she could think of to reduce her climate impact: she composted, cut back on driving and tried to reduce, reuse and recycle as much as possible. But the bushfires clarified the need for “firmer” action. “I’ve got no choice left,” she remembers thinking. “I can’t do this any more for my kids. I can’t let them live in a world where they have to check an air-rating app before they go outside.”
Googling led her to an organisation called Flight Free, which encourages Australians to stop flying. Without consulting her husband – “which, in hindsight, probably would have been a good thing to do” – Clara signed up. She vowed not to step foot on an aeroplane for the next 10 years.
“I just wanted to channel the rage, the anger and despair into something constructive.”
Clara is one of around 100 Australians who have taken Flight Free’s pledge to ditch air travel. Members can vow to quit flying for a year to test it out, or go all-in, boycotting air travel for the rest of their lives. Some, such as Clara, choose their own timeframe or tweak the pledge according to their circumstances. There is no one publicly holding pledgers to account; it’s a simple promise, made in an effort to tackle the escalating climate crisis.
While Flight Free is a small organisation in Australia, the movement is far bigger abroad. The first Flight Free was founded in Sweden – also the country of origin for flygskam, or “flight-shaming” – in 2018. Globally, there are 10,000 pledgers across 62 countries, and Flight Free is one of many organisations calling on the public to fly less or not at all. Celebrities including Taylor Swift and Kylie Jenner have lately been taken to task for their egregious private jet usage, and in the UK there are growing calls to impose a frequent flyer levy.
Although Flight Free has been operating in Australia since 2019, it’s no coincidence it has been slower to get off the ground domestically.
“Because of our physical location on the planet and our lack of fast rail infrastructure, it is a big challenge,” admits Mark Carter, co-founder of Flight Free Australia. “Unlike in Europe, there’s not really the convenient alternatives to flying here.”
Carter hopes Flight Free Australia will encourage more people to cut down on their air travel and potentially help to push future regulatory change. As well as collecting pledgers like Clara, Flight Free Australia does a “mixed bag” of anti-aviation lobbying work and seeks to raise public awareness of the industry’s emissions contributions.
So, how to quit flying in an island nation where major hubs are separated by thousands of kilometres and many remote areas are not accessible by land for parts of the year? “There’s not any quick or easy answer,” Carter says. But he believes extreme circumstances require extreme responses.
“The climate emergency puts us in a non-normal kind of world,” Carter says. “Being in an abnormal situation means we need to do things differently.” He likens inaction to watching TV while one’s house is burning down. “It’s that way of looking at it.”
Melbourne-based Flight Free pledger Peter Miller sees things similarly. He knows Carter “quite well” and their conversations convinced him to join the movement.
“I think that going on holiday is not justifiable if it’s going to cause that much damage,” Miller says. “To go for holiday to Fiji and emit all that carbon, to sit alone on a beach and have a drink just seems a little bit preposterous to me.”
Miller and his wife have both pledged off flying for the rest of their lives, though they may choose to travel if a loved one dies abroad, or similar “serious” circumstances. It’s been both an easy and difficult decision for the couple, both 64, to make.
On the one hand, Miller has had the privilege of travelling earlier in his life. But now that he is approaching retirement, the pledge means his golden years will look quite different from what he once imagined.
“It’s a fairly large impact on how we had thought we would be living at this point in time. But nevertheless, we feel very strongly about it.”
Instead of visiting Europe (“which would be nice,” Miller says), he and his wife are holidaying domestically, exploring the vast swathes of Australia they’ve not yet seen. The pair have already taken a couple of trips to Tasmania on the overnight ferry – a “little bit of an inconvenience” compared with the 75-minute flight, but not too onerous.
“If you spend a lot of your time trying to minimise your carbon by adding solar power or having electric cars or any of those things, that’s all well and good,” Miller says. “But if you then get on a plane and travel to London, you’ve just undone a year’s worth of good.”
Tim Ryley, a professor of aviation at Griffith University, agrees that at an individual level, quitting flying is the most impactful thing we can do to reduce our carbon footprint.
While aviation is a small percentage of Australia’s total carbon emissions (energy production is far and away the highest), “it’s harder to reduce than just about any other emission,” Ryley says.
Power can go solar, fuel-guzzling cars can be traded for EVs and beef patties can be swapped for lentil burgers, but there is currently no way to fly without causing an environmental impact. (Even airline CEOs concede offsets are “a fig leaf”.)
However, Ryley believes an Australia without planes as an unrealistic prospect. “Aviation is clearly not environmentally sustainable, but it is economically and socially sustainable,” he says. “It does help economically – cargo, that side of aviation, tends be ignored. Even if everyone stopped flying individually, you’d still get businesses delivering stuff from abroad.”
Life without flying also poses “the social challenges of people having family internationally, as well as across Australia”, Ryley says. While the environmental case has merit, “the demand and interest in flying, particularly in a post-Covid world, probably trumps that at the moment”.
The pandemic made the first couple of years of Clara’s pledge relatively easy, but she is aware the choices will get harder from now on. Already the decision to swear off air travel has come with some sacrifice. To avoid the need for interstate business trips, Clara has actively looked for roles that don’t require travel.
Both her and her husband’s parents live interstate, so a visit to the grandparents means a long drive, not a short flight. Clara’s husband would like to take the kids on a skiing holiday to Japan at some point, but that’s out of the question unless they can take months off work and go by boat, a prospect they have not ruled out.
All this makes Clara question whether she is doing right by her children.
“I do wonder, ‘Oh goodness, are my children going to be deprived because I’m making this decision for them?’ But then I counter that by thinking ‘Well, what are they going to be more angry about – the fact that they missed out going to Japan for a skiing holiday, or the fact that they have to live on a planet where they can’t actually breathe any more?’” Ultimately she wants to know “I did everything in my power to make things as least bad for them as I possibly could.”
Besides, Clara says, “My parents lived the bulk of their lives without ever stepping foot on a plane and had perfectly happy childhoods.”
*Name has been changed