Shaun Hendy's year without flying

Scientist Shaun spent a without flying to highlight climate change. As part of his #nofly2018 project, he drove Yoogo Share electric cars. Read his story as published on stuff.co.nz

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Scientist Shaun Hendy wanted to walk the talk when it came to climate change, so he gave up flying for 2018. He reflects on the highs and lows of a year of buses, trains and electric cars.

OPINION: In late November, a group of scientists, policy analysts, and communications folk gathered in Wellington to talk about climate change. One of the speakers that morning talked about her "climate anxiety". She described how she wakes in the night, worried about what will happen to our world, our society, our children, as we continue to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

She isn't alone. The morning after the 2016 United States presidential elections I woke with a climate change hangover. With Donald Trump gaining the White House we had just lost another four years in a fight that should have been won two decades ago. As the world continues to find excuses not to act, many of us in the science community feel a growing sense of helplessness.

A few months later, I saw a talk by Quentin Atkinson, a University of Auckland professor who studies how culture and beliefs spread. His talk introduced me to the concept of costly signalling: the idea that messages from people who walk the talk are seen to be more reliable than those who just use facts and evidence. If scientists expect the world to take us seriously about climate change, then maybe we need to be seen to be taking it seriously ourselves.

In 2017 I flew a total of 84,000 kilometres, emitting roughly 19 tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in the process. From my travel alone, I was responsible for emitting the carbon dioxide of 2½ average New Zealanders (although I come out slightly better if you take into account the methane emissions from our agriculture sector).

But last year wasn't even a big year for me. I  took only one trip to the northern hemisphere, whereas in 2016 I had two trips to Europe and one to the US. I was acting as if I didn't care about carbon dioxide at all.

So this year I stopped flying altogether. My job takes me to Wellington quite often (20 times in 2017), but in 2018 I took either the bus, the train, or attended meetings by videoconference. I have to go to Christchurch a couple of times a year, so this year I lined up these trips with visits to Wellington and took the ferry. To get to Dunedin to visit my parents, I rented an electric vehicle from Christchurch-based car share company Yoogo. I didn't go overseas at all.

The biggest cost came at a loss in flexibility. I could get to where I needed to be, but only if I had enough warning. When a meeting was moved from Nelson to Auckland with just a few weeks' notice, I had to scramble to cancel other meetings and found myself on an overnight bus. While I will gladly take the train again, and found the electric vehicle rentals both affordable and fun, I would rather avoid another overnight bus if I can help it!

But my #nofly2018 cut my emissions from travel to just over one tonne. And I wasn't alone. Atkinson, whose work inspired me to action, joined in, and later in the year I discovered a group of fellow (non-)travellers, who had started a Facebook group for non-flying Kiwis. Other scientists have told me that I have inspired them to take #nofly years too. Most people have been incredibly supportive.

I did annoy a few climate change deniers, and I've also been called a virtue signaller online a few times, although funnily enough, this was exactly the point. I've also realised that not everyone is in a position to completely cut air travel. Most of my science is done with computers, which means I can work from anywhere and don't have to fly to Antarctica to collect my data. Taking longer and slower trips away is going to be impossible if you have a young family.

But from a personal perspective, I found that I had regained a sense of control over the coming crisis. By taking action, even if it was only ever going to make a small difference, I felt considerably better about the world. Take that, Trump!

Next year I will go back to flying, but my new year resolution will be to cut my carbon emissions from travel by 30 per cent. I will continue using videoconferencing and I've learnt that, with good planning, I can replace a series of day trips with longer overnight trips away.

I've also had a glimpse into the future, where we all care about carbon as much as the climate scientists, and the impacts of the emissions from air travel are truly reflected in its cost.