LONDON, UK: Gilbert Ott (God Save The Points) on the inaugural British Airways A350 flight to Madrid from London Heathrow on 06 August 2019 (Picture by Nick Morrish/British Airways)

Let me start here with a very clear message: I think Greta Thunberg is wonderful, I firmly believe in the science behind climate change and I care passionately about curbing our human impact on the environment as quickly as possible, with the aim of keeping our temperature rise down. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the world is more extreme than ever, and change can’t happen soon enough. It’s imperative.

Now, let me instantly make myself a hypocrite by stating that in the last 10 days, I flew between New York and London twice (two round trips) and was also in Tel Aviv. I flew roughly 19,000 miles in 10 days, taking 6 flights, each of which was full. I could tell you that I offset my carbon emissions, or that I just had to be there, but Greta Thunberg wouldn’t accept this, and I don’t expect you to either.

I am a frequent flyer in the age of climate change. I am part of the problem, but at the same time, I also feel that attacking the airline industry is like attacking the people that make the paper lining for cigarettes, rather than the cigarette companies themselves.

LONDON, UK: Gilbert Ott (God Save The Points) on the inaugural British Airways A350 flight to Madrid from London Heathrow on 06 August 2019 (Picture by Nick Morrish/British Airways)

As a child, the travel dream and the “travel bug” hit me hard. I was terminal, right from the start. I love seeing new places, cultures and ways of life and I believe that doing so really can, but not necessarily will, make you a better person. You must have open eyes, hearts and minds to actually soak a place or way of life in – just being there doesn’t count. Flying is the fastest way to get there, and I now fly all the time as part of my job – a full time travel blogger.

A world where the “least worst” is the criterion for “ok” isn’t one I would’ve chosen to live in, but since it is the world we do live in, I think it’s ridiculous to single out airlines as the new “they are the enemy” part of the climate change mission. Why? Our collective goals of making environmentally sustainable ways of travel are more directly linked to airline balance sheets than any other travel business.

If this was the case in other industries, climate initiatives would be far more successful. Yes, if politicians had half the financial benefits from climate change initiatives that airline executives have, we wouldn’t be anywhere near the crisis we’re still in. Here’s why: airline expenses are pretty simple…

  • Fuel is the single greatest airline cost
  • The heavier a plane, the more fuel it needs
  • Catering, amenities and other things are expensive

Airlines, aerospace firms and fuel companies are devoting more time and energy to creating fuel efficient planes than anything else. Burning less fuel means spending less money on operating costs and there isn’t a CEO in the airline world who isn’t behind this. Creating pre order meals reduces food waste and also weight, which is yet another thing everyone can get behind. New planes such as the Airbus A350, or Boeing 787 Dreamliner burn an estimated 30% less fuel than previous models, and I personally seek out airlines which operate these planes.

But, let’s pivot to what I believe is the greatest near term crisis in travel, the one we really should be focusing on: the cruise industry. We’re talking about boats holding thousands upon thousands of people, which literally dump human waste in their trail, all into our beloved seas. They burn incredible amounts of fuel, and waste more than any business in travel.

The environmental impacts are grave, for example, a cruise ship burns up to 250 tonnes of heavy diesel fuel per day, in addition to more sulfur than the equivalent of several million cars, but the human impacts are worse. They’re ruining cities… today.

And before you say “this is classist”, look at cruise prices and look at flights, and accommodation options in the sharing economy. To say that a cruise is cheaper in 2019 is a complete fallacy. They’re simply not. I find more often cruises are more expensive, particularly since you generally need to fly to pick one up or return from one. Sure, you’re getting unlimited booze and food thrown in, but no one needs “unlimited booze”.

Take Santorini, a truly idyllic, “gotta see it to truly believe it” Greek island carved out of your wildest dreams. The island is home to roughly 15,000 locals, most of whom depend on tourism and the many industries which support tourism for income. During “the season”, four or more cruise ships will moor near Fira, the main port, and dump up to 12,000 cruise tourists onto the island, instantly doubling the population of a place meant for roughly half that number.

The problem: they don’t contribute to the local economy in any meaningful way…

Whereas most airline passengers stay on the island, which means eating on the island and paying a nightly accommodation tax, all of which supports local businesses and governments, these cruise passengers stuff their faces on board with “free” buffet and then come walk it off, take pictures and ransack the island. The average spend of a cruise passenger in Santorini? Under $5 per day. Yes, seriously – that’s a fact. Why eat local and discover new tastes when there’s free pasta on board? Eye roll, implied.

As proven in Venice, Santorini and countless other cities around the world, cruise ships not only drain natural resources, but they drain human resources too. To tackle the issue, Venice recently added an entry fee, because cruise tourists were contributing so little to the local economy, and taking so much from the natural resources.

When I fly to Santorini, I pay for a hotel, which supports a local business. I eat, drink, tour and do other things, all of which support locally owned businesses. And yes, I do avoid chains wherever possible, I’m not daft. I most likely pay an overnight guest tax, or surcharge, which helps contribute to the infrastructure to better support visits like mine, too.

Basically: an airline passenger, by default, spend an exponential figure towards a local economy and the people who actually live in a destination, versus cruise passengers. Our climate is a concern we cannot ignore, and it may threaten our very existence one day, but industries like the cruise industry threaten entire cities, populations and the sustainability of regions around the world – today. Going back to the “least worst” argument, airlines are definitely the “least worst” of the two and I firmly believe that airlines are doing more to curb their waste than any other travel industry.

Again, this not because it’s out of the goodness of their hearts, necessarily, but because it’s good for business and it’s actually fundamental to creating profit in a time when you can fly from New York to Barcelona for under $250 round trip, and sometimes even lower in the other direction. Heck, you can fly to China for under $300 sometimes…

Feudally defending myself, I can’t help but laugh at the criticism I get from people who don’t fly, yet drive f**king Range Rovers, or leave their lights on all day. I live in a modest home, I don’t own a car, I recycle, I try to minimise the transportation costs of my food by buying locally farmed produce and meat and I don’t litter, or smoke. I use a metal water bottle, and I have a recycled coffee cup, made from recycled materials. Does that make me ok, and absolve me of my flying sins? Of course not.

I will keep flying because the world is incredible and seeing it makes me care more every day about protecting it. We’re not far off of electric engines on planes, and airlines are reducing thousands of tonnes in plastic waste with new initiatives each year. When you have something; or someone you must see, you will get on a plane too. When you do, my suggestion would be to start to care more about…

  • Which planes – learn which airlines offer younger, more fuel efficient fleets. It’s better for the environment and they are better for your body too. Better air pressure, less noise.
  • Which airlines – airlines all compete on price, so if prices are uniformly low, pick the airline with the best climate and waste reduction initiatives.
  • Offsetting your footprint – a friend recommended Offset.earth and I find their initiatives to be exemplary, simple and meaningful. Please consider supporting this cause. Not many bad things come from planting trees…

I want to live in a world that my future children may be able to enjoy and breath the air in safely. But I also want them to see the parts of the world that make you appreciate just how special and unique each part is. Flying will forever be the most logical and efficient way of doing so, and since the needs of the environment are so uniquely intertwined with the needs of the travel businesses dominating the skies, I think those who are singling out frequent flyers as the root of all climate evil have misplaced their anger.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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36 Comments

  1. Thanks for this article. Although I’ve never felt attacked for flying, I do have a sense of guilt about it. Another option for people who want to continue flying and try to minimize their impact us to buy offsets. Especially when I’m flying in suites for “free” with miles, I’d be happy to build that in. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a good source on the best and verified offset organizations and I don’t want to throw money away. I also wonder if there’s other things, like calculations on how much less meat you could eat to make up for your emissions from a flight. Do you have any suggestions? A post on that could be helpful.

    Also, do cruises actually dump untreated human waste into the oceans? That can’t be legal right?

  2. You’ve just scratched the surface of the hypocrisy of the extinction rebellion extremists. Modern life as we know it requires vast amount of fossil fuels to run the grid, to manufacture the tools we all use and to enjoy modern medicine and home comfort (air conditioning and heat). Converting to solar is not an overnight process nor is it 100% possible due to limitations on battery tech. Nor do all of us have time to take a 2 week cruise like Greta when we want to visit NYC.
    Enjoy your flights, feel no guilt – and of course do your part to reduce your own emissions though even collectively that will have little effect when 2 billions Chinese and Indian people live in countries that spew pollutants into the atmosphere

  3. @ian check out https://www.cooleffect.org/ they put a lot of thought into the projects they offer offsets from, and all validated, of course.

    There need to be more soul searching by our community on this. Gary Leff is in full denial mode. This article begins to scratch the surface but not in a meaningful way. Could be a nice series if dig in deeper. We all love to travel but it comes at a cost that we are pushing on to future generations. How they will appreciate our use of cheap miles (good job grandpa). So what can we do?

    1. Try watching something other than Faux “News”. Like most other deniers here, you do not leave a name. Maybe Faux did not tell you, but AntiFa stands for anti-fascist. The facts are in, almost all terrorist acts committed in the last 50 years have been carried out by religious fanatics of one stripe or another. Not anit-fascists.

  4. Sorry, you consume a lot of fuel and cause global warming. No excuses about it.

    True, those who criticize you might drive Range Rovers (no, I drive a car that gets 30 mpg in the city and also drive only 4,000 miles per year because of public transit use other times).

    The difficulty is the way to reverse global warming is to cut energy use so much that we would live like people did in the year 1600. Air conditioning, cars, air travel, so many manufactured goods, importing food long distances, plastic use (including plastic in computers and kitchen items) would all have to be banned in order to cut temperatures 0.05 degrees. Very tough situation.

  5. Come on Gilbert, Green is the new Red. What is extreme weather? Does the weather know it’s being too extreme for your sensibilities? The weather is the weather. The magnificent technological and social development that our collective humanity has achieved since the industrial revolution is remarkable. Can you please tell me the ideal global temperature? You’re certain of humanity’s demise due to some climate catastrophe, but can you tell me the precise weather forecast in London when I visit next month? Stop drinking the swill and wise up to this giant con. Be a good steward of the environment and God’s creatures, don’t be a good steward of the eco-statists. As much as the green (re: Red) agenda fits with tenets of most western faiths (apocalypse, guilt, penance, salvation, self-righteousness, etc.) and fills the European post-Christianity void for purpose and meaning, the con job is an assault on capitalism, freedom, and the fruits of both. School children since the 80s (at least in the US) have been feed a daily dose of enviro-propaganda and social engineering and I’ve had the displeasure of seeing the statists’ propaganda steadily veer hard left (advocates of a command economy) rather than the softer psuedo-profound messsages of “save the rainforest” and “…there are starving children in Africa.” The saddest and obvious truth is these snake oil salesmen, along with their useful idiots, are driven by self-interest not some altruistic motive to help their fellow man. They Hate their fellow man. I’ll believe there’s a “Climate Crisis” when those screaming about it start acting like there’s a “Climate Crisis.” DiCaprio and Algore on their private jets is pretty telling. Further, the US Dems will host a 16yr old Swede to push their idealogical agenda knowing full well that this sad child’s torment and anxiety are based on a fraud. Would this same Congress host the 16yr old child from a Kentucky catholic school who they smeared with racialist insults for wearing a red hat and standing resolutely in front of an Indian activist getting in his face? No. The answer is a plain “no.” What about his torment, defamation of character, etc?Why on Earth would anyone listen to an emotionally compromised person, much less an emotional teenager? Are there any adults left in the room?

  6. Thank you for this article. You’re aware of the impact your job and travel habits have on the Earth- that’s a big step. Further, you are not belittling the efforts being made by people like Fröken Thunberg even as you acknowledge that her prescription for change will not work for everyone. I think that using this megaphone you have (your Website) to patiently explain to your readers will have a far more noticeable effect on emissions than any other single, individual action you could take. So, please keep it up!

    And, someday, when the capitalist system has found a way to commodify CO2 reduction effectively, I’m sure you will pay into the scheme. Regardless of how I feel about capitalism, I accept fully that it will have to be part of the solution.

    Currently, as you note, carbon credits are not sufficiently well-policed or tracked to be anything more than a feel-good mechanism. The world doesn’t need “feel good.” That simply encourages complacency. We need to be scared and shamed into action.

  7. Chris,
    In reply to your comment above: “We need to be scared and shamed into action”? Who is this “We” to which you refer? I don’t need to be “scared” or “shamed” by my neighbors whose sensibilities differ from mine. I, or “We”, definately don’t need to be shamed by a child whose wisdom can be measured by outstretched arms. Your arrogance and apparent servile nature towards totalitarianism is exactly why consented governance should remain local and not global. You better make your bed in the morning before you attempt to conquer perceived global issues. If you can’t tackle the trivial tasks in life….just stop right there. Do you approach REAL social ills like drug use, out of wedlock birth, infanticide, euthanasia, preventable disease transmission, etc. with your same fervor for community shame, pariahhood, and shunning as you do carbon emissions? You know you exhale a form of carbon, right? Are you attempting to starve plantlife? You will reach for the Kool-Aid and still project your precieved moral authority as you choke on your on naïveté. Your masters appreciate you. Safe travels and cheers!

  8. Thank you for the thought piece Gilbert. I love your work. On second look, it turns out that my screed is only tangentially related to the thesis of your article. Cruises, or at least the economies of scale size cruise lines, typically cater to a certain clientele that my otherwise not be able to afford the richness of travel experiences. Perhaps this is arrogant and full of conceit, but maybe the greatest positive externality to cruise lines is that they provide the least with the most, relatively speaking, exposure. I forgot who the comedian was, maybe Bill Burr?, but the idea of torpedoing Cruise ships to cull the herd would be in line with some of your other commenters’ trains of thought. Bill Burr is F’ing hysterical if you haven’t caught his bits.

    1. Matt, I think that – that’s a fundamental fallacy, cruises being cheaper. People believe them to be, but I believe with Airbnb and the record low fares we are seeing, plus the option not to pre pay an all you can drink and eat buffet that a la carte travel can be cheaper, which is why I don’t see my argument as a classist war.

  9. Gee, how lucky are you that the industry you’re so passionate about is so good about being climate conscious. Thankfully you fell in love with air travel as a child.

    But that dirty cruise ship industry is really bad. Thank god your parents never sent you on a cruise as a kid, that might have turned you into a cruise blogger. Then you’d be dirty and Greta would hate you, too.

  10. If you really want to do something about climate change eat plant-based. Watch the movie Cowspiracy on Netflix. This will explain the impact giving up meat will have on your personal carbon foot print. Watch “what the health” or “forks over knifes” do you understand how this will also improve your health. Read or better yet listen to the Audible while flying of “how not to die.” Nutritionfacts.org is an amazing non profit site that condences health info through thousands of past and present studies. Watch the new movie “game changers “ to see how some of the most elite athletes have experienced improved performance theough plant based diets. James Cameron and arnold had a hand in this one. And if you do all that and switch to a mostly plant-based diet, then you will more than offset your flight carbon

  11. You delegitimized your blog in your first sentence saying Greta Thunberg is wonderful. Saying her childhood was stolen by climate change is a bit much given she probably leads a comfortable life in Sweden in a nice home and community. Even those in Venice which has been sinking for hundreds of years or in the Netherlands which 40% used to be underwater before dams and dikes being built, aren’t going to say their childhood was stolen by climate change.

    1. I agree that her childhood has been stolen. Everyone growing up post 9/11, post financial crisis could claim that it’s been extraordinary times not seen since the likes of Vietnam or WWII, and the climate makes it worse. Everyone had a hell of a time in the roaring 80’s dressing like Michael Douglas, doing cocaine and writing mortgages to anyone with a pulse – but that was never sustainable.

  12. Well, it worked. You got people to notice this blog post and comment on the obvious hypocrisy. I never really understood why people take a stand to believe that global warming is real and that humans can have a major impact on it one way or another. I also don’t understand why people take a stand that capitalism is bad yet embrace industries that come from this (Apple computers, travel industry, etc.). It’s like a religion or cult that follows leaders without question. Odd.
    But out of all of that, I always fail to understand why the media and some travel enthusiasts hate the cruise industry. I guess I can understand the liberal media that just like punishing the cruise industry when a drunk moron falls off a ship because of the “if it bleeds it leads” factor. This doesn’t explain many others. It’s one thing if you hate going on cruises or have never been on one. Some people don’t like to fly. I’ll state the obvious in that if you “really” feel that humans are killing the planet and children are going to die you have two choices. Quit flying, quit using energy, live in a sod house and recycle your urine or just burn up the sky on travel and end it all sooner for all of us. Don’t take all this as an insult. I generally enjoy your blog so I hope you take the second path.

  13. I really wouldn’t worry mate. The worst thing a person can do to the planet is having a child. Thunberg said at the UN (something along the lines of) that we cannot continue having infinite economic growth on a finite planet. Well that infinite economic growth is driven by the engine of massive population rise. Supply will follow demand.

    It baffles me that for a lot of climate change fanatics that this is never mentioned as the ONLY realistic option to avoid that they fear. Often hypocritically screaming at us not to use plastic bottles while having several children on their books. They only demonstrate in countries where they are treated fairly and insist that we stop flying, stop driving and go live out in the wilderness.

    Having children is the most catastrophic thing one can do. Consider the absolute carnage of consumption a human being engages in during their lifetime and then perpetuates that through the generations as their children have their own children and so forth. You can recycle all the plastic you want, walk and swim everywhere and even warm yourself by burning your own faeces… it won’t make a dent.

    If they want to reverse climate change by all means be serious abut it and pay much greater attention to the countries decimating ecosystems with population growth. If they can’t or don’t want to whatever reason, then should sit down, shut up, and leave the rest of us alone to sit back and enjoy what quality of life we have left,

  14. When Leonardo DiCaprio and Bernie Sanders stop giving me grief for using a straw, in between daily private flights among their 3-4 multi-million dollar houses, then perhaps I can muster up a bit of sympathy.

  15. And then there are institutions like National Geographic. Their publication clearly believes strongly that climate change is real and very bad for the planet. You read about it in just about every issue. Fair enough. Then they organize world tours on a private 757 jet seating just 75 people covering Machu Picchu, Easter Island, Angkor, Lhasa, the Taj Mahal, the Serengeti, Petra and more, all on the same trip for only around $90,000 pp.

    So do you care about climate change or don’t you, National Geographic?

  16. You’re going to great rhetorical lengths to minimize responsibility for your own behavior; it reads like an entitled child pleading that he shouldn’t get in as much trouble because the other children are worse. I can love air travel and still recognize that I’m part of a serious problem. Just because your critics are hypocrites does not make them wrong, they’re just idiots making a valid point. Grow some balls and own the problem. All this finger pointing is tiresome to read.

    PS. And electric engines are far from commercial use.

      1. If you were truly serious and blame yourself then you would just stop flying. If you don’t you’re a hypocrite.

        Don’t ruin your life. Accept that it’s terrible but it’s not going to change. Enjoy yourself. No one leaves alive anyway.

  17. Currently air travel is generally estimated to contribute to about 2% of total carbon emissions impact by a broad range of scientific studies. Other studies raise that to 4 to 5% when direct impact of chemical reactions to the atmosphere created from flights is factored into total impact.

    Another general agreement among studies is the growth of airline travel in the next 10 to 20 years will vastly outpace any potential fuel reduction efficiencies introduced by new technologies in air travel. (Electric planes are not in the immediate future.)

    The growth of air travel over the next two decades will likely mean the contribution of air travel to total carbon emissions will rise significantly from the 2% range currently estimated, while simultaneously most industries around the world are far more rapidly reducing their carbon emissions impact through technological advances.

    One of the ways to individually reduce carbon footprint from air travel besides flying less frequently is to fly on aircraft that move the most passengers more efficiently around the planet. Norwegian tends to rank at or near the top for airline fuel efficiency due to all economy class cabin.

    Flying Business and First Class takes up far more space on an aircraft and results in a disporportionate rate of carbon emmissions to move a person across the planet in the same amount of space on an aircraft that could be used to transport two or three passengers.

    1. You’ve just battered Gilbert’s argument. We’re all on the titanic. It’s sinking. Might as well enjoy a glass of champagne while we rearrange the deck chairs.

  18. Interesting perspective Gilbert. I guess another choice we can make is to take direct flights over connections where possible as take off and landing consumes a disproportionate amount of the fuel. Sadly most of the good deals involve connecting via another city.

  19. A lot of science denial going on in the responses to this column. While it is certainly true that the real problem is over 6 billion people on this small planet, we should all try to do our part and stop listening to the deniers.

    1. You’re conflating two issues here buddy.

      You’re right that climate change deniers do not believe in climate change but that is different to those who do believe in climate change but understand that nothing can or will be done about it.

      Very few people in the rest of the world, where the bulk of Earth’s population lies, e.g South East Asia, South Asia care about climate change. Even countries where a large percentage of the population care about climate change will do nothing and become worse. The world will continue to overpopulate, over-consume and pollute in rampant numbers.

      So doing our part means nothing. It may make us feel better, but it means nothing.

      The population of Earth stands at 7.7 billion by the way.

  20. There’s one fundamental really, the earth cannot cope with 6 billion people flying (or anything close). So remember that it is a privilege and don’t take the biscuit. One phrase that sends shivers down my spine is Tier Point Runs

  21. Thanks for a thoughtful article, Gilbert. The best we can do is to stay aware, do what we see as meaningful, and live the best lives we can. I could list all the ways I am minimalist in my daily life, but that doesn’t make me plan to give up future trips to Bhutan, Botswana, or Lithuania. And I tend to fly business class with all my hoarded points. Maybe I’ll see things differently in five years, but I’m okay with the way I’m living right now – and thankful I never had kids.

  22. My feeling about this is simple. Those planes are going to fly whether I’m on them or not. So I might as well get on them. Traveling, or flying is one of the things I enjoy.

  23. I really wonder why you had to get into politics. But since we are at it, my two cents are that “global warming” is fake news. There is no science behind it. The mentally ill child who is being used by her parents to make money for them and for giant corporations is just a puppet of very powerful interests who would be better off just attending both school and and appropriate mental clinic. I’ll continue to fly my ass off as long as I can. And I hope you continue writing this great blog and don’t commit ritual suicide to assuage the bloodthirst of climate fundamentalist losers.

  24. I’m glad for this article. I have begun thinking more and more about the impact my travel makes on the environment and I am glad you yourself are thinking about it and not trying to bend over backwards in an attempt to justify it. I think the first step is recognizing the issue and then trying to address it.

    I have seen people on the comments here say that air travel is just a small portion of the problem and that there are things that are worse. That’s not wrong, but I don’t think anyone should be trying the old “my part isn’t that big so why should I change when China/oil/cruises are polluting way more.” I think everyone needs to take look at their own impact and try to mitigate it.

    Personally, I have cut back on the number of trips and try to stay for longer rather than the “I have points, let’s fly somewhere for the weekend” idea. I love travel. I think seeing the world has changed me for the better and I honestly don’t want to stop, but weather is getting more extreme. I think we need to all be trying to do something to help. Even if you don’t believe climate change is “real” what is so bad about changing your habits by small degrees to make more sustainable choices that don’t cause as much harm as in years past. Travel is my hobby. It is the thing that my disposable income goes toward so it’s hard to consider a drastic change, but I think we all need to try to shift at least a little.

  25. Thank you for calling attention to this.

    Along with you and a few others, I believe that we should all own up to the fact that we are part of the problem. It doesn’t matter how others drive gigantic cars or sail gigantic ships, flying does contribute a ton to climate change, however you look at it.

    Sure, we are passionate about travel and the sacrifice it would require to give it up doesn’t seem worthwhile compared to the tiny gain (if any) in reduced emissions. It would also be impractical in many cases. Just note that the same argument can be made by people who pollute the world in different ways… we all have a weak spot for something, and we continue contributing more to the problem than trying to solve it.

    Where I disagree with you is how capitalism works. This entire problem that we’re in is due to the fact that capitalists do not have to factor the cost on the environment into their price tags. Leaving it up to individuals to buy emission offsets is purely a joke from the aggregate perspective. I believe real change has to come from globally governing authorities. Tax all types of emission and pollution to (1) curb behavior and (2) fund research and emission reduction efforts, and make sure that it’s heavy enough to actually balance both sides of the equation. We will all be unhappy, of course, but is there any other way? We need to stop fooling ourselves in thinking that a small handful of conscious and affluent individuals can make a difference.

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