How Many Plastic Bags Does It Take to Get to Chicago?

Research in focus: ‘Green’ on the ground but not in the air: Pro-environmental attitudes are related to household behaviours but not discretionary air travel

To land in Chicago is to see life subsumed by geometry. A near perfect grid criss-crossed by the occasional spoke. When I drink in this view, I know I am home. Wherever a plane may land, the patterns and patchworks that reveal themselves before touchdown speak of what is to come, however mysterious or familiar that may be.

                 Chicago From Above

But as news of our planet’s warming grows more frequent and pronounced, I am troubled by two conflicting emotions when it comes to air travel. On the one hand, I am embarrassed to engage one of the most carbon-hungry forms of transport available. Surely, the climate-related risk to people’s homes and homelands makes the decision not to fly obvious.

On the other hand, any time I think to raise the topic, perhaps to explain why I go home less often or why we have taken to holidaying in Ireland, I also feel uncomfortable. It’s easier to say that we’re not flying as much because we have a toddler. And it’s partially true.

I had thought maybe it was just me. That everyone else had this figured out, and that’s why we’re not talking about it. Then the title of the academic paper ‘”Green” on the ground but not in the air’ caught my eye. The findings in this paper show that the disconnect between environmental impulse and non-environmental action isn’t just something I’m experiencing.

Led by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health (ECEHH) at the University of Exeter’s Medical School, this analysis found that discretionary flight behaviour among UK citizens could not be linked either to what the authors call ‘pro-environmental’ attitudes or to household behaviours. That is to say, just because the people who care about climate change are likely to change their day-to-day household habits in light of it, does not mean that they reduce their personal air travel. (This does not include travel for work.)

Data Sources

  • British Household Panel Survey, Wave 18, 2009 (n = 14,419)
  • Climate Change and Transport Choices, England, 2009-2010 (n = 3923)

I interviewed Dr. Mathew White, Senior Lecturer at ECEHH and co-author on the study. He said that this lack of connection stood out to lead author Dr. Ian Alcock when he was looking at the results of two large surveys. He noticed that both datasets contain variables known to relate to pro-environmental attitudes and behaviours.

Dr. Alcock brought his early flight findings to his colleagues, and Dr. White said that when they couldn’t find any relationship between flying and environmentalist attitudes or behaviours, they thought it was strange,

“because people who are worried about climate change and worried about the environment, etc., etc., should also not fly as much, right?

Their finding, or perhaps better stated, lack of finding, is a simple, yet powerful description of a social phenomenon. The fact that it was replicated across two datasets makes it robust. It took the team a couple of years to put their models together, because they had to tease out the impact of personality traits, personal values, and socio-demographic factors.

They found that the decision of whether and how much to fly is a privileged one. Just over half of the sampled populations hadn’t flown at all in the last year. This group isn’t necessarily made up of environmentalists. But its members are likely to be, among other things, male, older than 66, disabled, with low household incomes, low education qualifications, and children at home.

Meanwhile, the people who fly the greatest distances are likely younger than 75 and have no kids at home. They’re also likely to have high incomes, low risk-aversion, and a high level of materialism and interest in politics. In their review of the literature, the authors write that:

…year on year increases in UK leisure flights appear to be the result of richer people flying more frequently, rather than cheaper flights making air travel accessible to more people (Cairns and Newson, 2006).

On a global scale, year-on-year increases are significant. In a recent analysis, the International Air Transport Authority reported that air passenger traffic increased 9.6% from January 2016 to January 2017. And in Ireland, the Central Statistics Office reported a 12.5% increase in passengers passing through its airports between 2014 and 2015. ‘”Green” on the Ground’ cites research (here and here) that finds aviation’s share of GHG emissions is set to rise, such that ‘…aviation may account for 15%–40% of global CO2 emissions by 2050.’

World Airline Route Map 2009, by Jpatokal – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

On a personal level, the climate impact of extra flights can undo all the carbon savings hard-won at home. As Dr. White said,

…you can recycle plastic bags until you’re blue in the face. One flight kills all of that. Knocks it all out. I guess the point we’re trying to get across is it’s no good saying you’re green literally on the ground and in everything you do at home if you just go and fly once to the Bahamas. That’s it. Game over.

He’s not wrong. In How Bad Are Bananas? Mike Berners-Lee calculates that flying London to Glasgow and back (810 km) burns as much as 50,000 standard plastic shopping bags. London to Hong Kong return (19,400 km) costs the same as 340,000 bags. I calculate that my trip to Chicago comes to around 250,000 bags, which, I assure you, will never fit into my bag of bags for recycling.

The findings of ‘”Green” on the Ground’ are UK-specific, but it seems fairly likely that the Republic of Ireland wouldn’t be much different given that both are island states. Dr. White illustrated the impact of geography and infrastructure in explaining his own behaviour:

… I’ve lived on the continent. We didn’t have a car and we practically never flew, because the train network was so unbelievably good. And we went all around Europe. … Whereas being in these islands makes it difficult, I guess, so it would be interesting to see other countries, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same.

While the analysis cannot explain in depth why people who care about climate change continue to fly, it shows that they do and who they are. The authors draw on existing theory to offer some explanation. They suggest that household behaviours might be more likely to match pro-environmental stances because of the influence of everyday habit. It is the nature of holidays to be out of the ordinary, they argue, and so it is perhaps unsurprising that they do not fit into a person’s self-conception as climate conscious.

I’d also argue that some behaviours, like turning lights off in empty rooms and insulating a house, have added financial efficiencies. But we don’t go on holiday to save money. And while reusable bags substitute for plastic ones and electric cars can stand in for petrol vehicles, there is no way to substitute for a foreign trip. Galway isn’t Greece. The Wicklow Mountains aren’t the Himalayas.

As philosopher and general wise-man-about-town Alain de Botton writes,

If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest – in all its ardour and paradoxes – than our travels. They express, however inarticulately, an understanding of what life might be about, outside the constraints of work and the struggle for survival.

What we do with our free time flags who we believe ourselves to be. Holidays give us something to discuss on our lunch breaks, to dream about during meetings, and to plan with our friends and loved ones. We mark ourselves out as adventurers, connoisseurs, do-gooders, or revellers. With every break, we tell ourselves and others, ‘I am not just a button pusher.’ And that means something.

Even as I write this, I am bothered by a yen to see more of our rich and varied Earth. Early parenthood is stalling the issue for me. But in time, I also want my kid to know what it is to be out of her depth in new and different places. And of course, I want her to come back home now and then. 

I don’t know how we should talk about flying, but it seems important that we do. The norms and cultural expectations that shape our understanding of travel run deep. To say we should just stop taking planes altogether is to foreclose the conversation before it even begins. Right now, we lack a shared understanding of how often and in what circumstances it is okay to fly. Yet the sea change in behaviour that’s necessary to keep global warming down to two degrees means we’re going to have to find new values, perhaps in slow trips and our own backyards.

Other work from Dr. White

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