Features | From Pivot Magazine

Planes emit two per cent of the world’s carbon emissions. So should we stop flying?

The founder of Flight Free Canada 2020 wants you to try 

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Nathalie Laplante at Quebec's Saint-Jérôme train station Nathalie Laplante at Quebec’s Saint-Jérôme train station (Photograph by Guillaume Simoneau)

Nathalie Laplante has made it her job to convince people to stay on the ground. In June, the 34-year-old community organizer, who lives in the village of Val-David in the Laurentian Mountains, began Flight Free Canada 2020, a campaign to keep 100,000 Canadians from flying for one year. The initiative is part of a worldwide movement, launched by Swedish activist Maja Rosén in 2018, targeting the booming (and carbon-heavy) airline industry, which accounts for two per cent of global carbon emissions. Sweden is also home to the teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who crossed the Atlantic Ocean in a zero-carbon-emissions sailboat in September to attend a United Nations climate summit in New York City. Similarly, Laplante’s short-term goal is to get people to realize the pollution associated with air travel. Maybe some of those people will follow in her footsteps—she hasn’t flown in 12 years.

How did your work with Flight Free 2020 begin?
I was overwhelmed by my job and wanted to get involved with something I believed in. At one point I realized that it had been a long time since I’d taken a plane, and decided I wasn’t going to take one any time soon. I did some research and found the campaign that Maja Rosén had started with the Swedish organization We Stay on the Ground, how it had spread to other countries. I called her and I was inspired by her approach, so I decided to start the campaign in Canada.

There are lots of ways we can all cut down on our carbon footprint. Why focus on air travel?
Aviation and airplanes are the elephant in the room. No one dares talk about them because they provide an escape. And yet they have a huge environmental impact. The politics behind it is difficult because of international airways. It’s not like tar sands, where it’s very obvious where it’s happening because you can see it. In the sky, the pollution doesn’t really “belong” to anyone, it’s hard to tax and ultimately you can’t see the damage you’re doing.

What about carbon or methane offsets?
It’s a start, in that it sensitizes people to the concept of airline pollution, but it’s not a solution. I have trouble with the concept. It’s a greenwash-style method of making people feel better about themselves. Flying across the ocean and back and then giving money to an organization to plant a few trees doesn’t have an impact. The best way to avoid pollution is to not pollute in the first place.

But is it realistic to get people to stop flying altogether?
It’s doesn’t seem like it, but it’s actually closer than we might think. I’m inspired by what’s happening in Sweden. Yes, they have a better rail system. But in the past year there’s been a big decline in the number of domestic passengers. People are really trying to change their ways to avoid flying. Of course, it’s not feasible for us to think we can stop flying altogether, but the campaign is an opportunity to talk to people, and maybe they’ll start by reducing the number of trips they take every year. We see it as impossible to take away flying altogether, but flying a lot is relatively recent behaviour. One or two generations ago, people hardly ever flew.

What about people who have to travel for work?
I see it as an exception. Most flights aren’t for work, they’re for leisure. If we just took that leisure chunk away or even reduced it by half, that would be a start. We should be using our judgment every time we book a flight. Is this really necessary in the context we are in? Because the planet is in crisis, and we don’t really think about it when we book a flight.

What kind of reaction have you had here in Canada to the campaign?
People tend to compare the movement here to the one in Europe. Understandably, they find it less realistic here because our rail system is slower and less developed, and they wonder about their alternatives. I think it’s a question of changing your perspective. What are we trying to get from flying abroad on a vacation? Is it something we can do closer to home?

What would those 100,000 Canadians who ground themselves for a year save, carbon dioxide-wise?
If 100,000 people avoided one round-trip, transatlantic flight a year, from Toronto to London, for example, it would be the equivalent of taking 59,496 cars off the road for one year, or more than 82 million litres of gasoline.

I hate to say this, but when I was online researching the flight-free movement, I got advertisements for flights to the Caribbean.
I have to laugh about this. Ever since I started this campaign and have been doing the same kind of research, I’ve had so many ads for free flights on Facebook. It’s exactly what I don’t want.