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Why I quit flying and driving for a year

Dr Shaun Hendy. Photo/Ken Downie

In 2018, Shaun Hendy quit planes and petrol-powered cars for train, buses, ferries and EVs. It wasn’t always easy, but he slashed his carbon bill for travel from 19 tonnes to just one. And it felt good.

I learned about the attack on the Christchurch mosques while I was wandering through Parliament grounds. I’d been at a meeting that day at the Royal Society Te Apārangi, just a few blocks away, but had hoped to catch the tail-end of the School Strike 4 Climate demonstration. But by the time I’d walked over to Parliament, the crowds had gone. I opened Twitter on my phone to see if the march had moved on. I was stunned.

A few minutes later, I found myself standing in front of the steps up to the Beehive on Bowen St, staring at messages strikers had chalked on the concrete. “Love People”, “Kaitiaki”, “We Stand Together”, they had written. A young woman, maybe 15 or 16, saw that I was crying and handed me a piece of chalk for my own words.

We live in a time where our young people not only have to march on Parliament to demand a future, they also have to comfort elders as they are confronted by the reality of the world they have built.

I learned about global warming when I was 11. It was 1982, and my best friend and I were working on a science-fair project based on an article in Scientific American magazine, “Carbon Dioxide and Global Climate”. It’s hard to remember now whether my younger self had a sense of how this problem would come to loom in coming decades. I suspect not, because most of my choices since then have prioritised exploring the world over saving it.

It took the election of the improbably orange, impossibly coiffed President of the United States to make me realise that, in fact, climate change was my problem. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always voted as if it was and, from time to time, I have spoken up. I had done just enough to hide the fact I was part of a system that outsourced the responsibility for real change to others. Stick to the science and avoid advocacy, Sir Peter Gluckman (the inaugural Chief Science Advisor to the Prime Minister) told the science community, lest you lose the trust of the politicians.

The scientific debate over whether our carbon dioxide emissions were warming the climate can be traced back to the late 1800s, when CO₂ was found to be one of the greenhouse gases. But carbon dioxide dissolves in water, and for most of the 20th century it was thought the oceans would soak up the fossil carbon we were releasing into the air. In the late 1950s, however, scientists discovered the oceans weren’t keeping up with us, and carbon dioxide levels in the air were steadily growing. By the early 90s, scientists concluded the earth’s temperature was rising in response. The scientific debate was over, bar trying to work out how bad it was going to get and how best to alert the world to what was happening.

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This last challenge was the one I needed to own myself. Climate change denial has been spearheaded by the male, the Pākehā, and the privileged. Think Rodney Hide and fellow travellers – people not so different to me. For decades, deniers have spread confusion and doubt about the science, stoking conspiracy theories and even taken our scientists to court. To the experts, the claims of deniers are ludicrous, but the heat generated in refuting this misinformation creates an impression of uncertainty. We needed to find new ways of talking about climate change.

When you burn a litre of petrol, you pull 1.7kg of oxygen from the air and replace it with 2.4kg of carbon dioxide. If you were to fill a 7500-litre backyard swimming pool with petrol and set it on fire, you’d put about the same amount of carbon dioxide into the air as I did in 2017, when I clocked up 84,000km on planes. I was flying as if I didn’t believe in climate change. Was the way scientists like me travelled also undermining the credibility of our science? Not long after one of the world’s most prominent climate change deniers was sworn into office in Washington DC, I made a decision. It was time for me to walk my talk right out of the Koru lounge.

My 2018 was spent on trains, buses and ferries. Occasionally, I travelled by electric car. A typical medium-sized petrol car driven from Auckland to Wellington will add about 130kg of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, compared to about 150kg per person for a flight. The train, although diesel-powered, will only set you back 17kg on the same trip, a bit less than the bus and slightly more than an electric car. When able, I used video-conferencing, but I also replaced the day trips I used to make by plane with longer stays, swapping multiple  flights for just a pair of train trips. Although I didn’t go overseas at all, I still managed to cover 18,000km – but by swapping planes for trains, I cut my carbon bill for travel from 19 tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2017 to just over one tonne in 2018. It felt good.

But there was a catch. The planes that I was avoiding might still fly, quite possibly with someone else in my seat. To keep that carbon in the ground, I had to persuade a plane-load of other people to skip a flight too. Communicating what I was doing was actually the key to reducing my carbon footprint, instead of simply passing culpability for it on to someone else. From the start, I documented my travels on Twitter using the hashtag #NoFly2018. 

By April, after a few trips up and down the country, the media were starting to take notice. Radio New Zealand covered the story from every angle they could think of (“Man catches train”); even Mike Hosking did his bit (“There is no train to Australia, is there?”). A group called Fly Less Kiwis started up on Facebook to swap tips on intercity bus travel (“Go to the loo when you can, not when you need to”). Then in August, Greta Thunberg burst onto the scene.


I’m writing this piece at the tail-end of a trip around the country by train to promote my book #NoFly: Walking the Talk on Climate Change, which documents that year. I’ve talked to policy-makers in Wellington about our new landmark Zero Carbon legislation. I’ve chatted with farmers in the South Island about carbon offsetting, with mountains shrouded in smoke from the Australian bushfires for a backdrop. Along the way, I’ve met some inspirational young people, but I have also had a few conversations that showed me just what a burden we are asking them to bear.

I have lived most of my life as if I didn’t believe in climate change. Our young people don’t have that luxury. Several times I was asked by students whether they were studying the right subjects at university to help in the fight against climate change. Once or twice, I was asked for advice on how to cope with climate anxiety. I was asked what my university was doing. I don’t have good answers to these questions.

What I do know is this is a fight we must all play a part in. But even if all of us gave up flying or went vegan, that wouldn’t be enough to arrest global warming – and not all of us have the luxury of being able to do so. So while individual action is important, we must also demand that our politicians, our community leaders, and the organisations we work for play their part. As one student wrote on the steps of Parliament on 15 March – we must stand together.  

North & South guest columnist Professor Shaun Hendy’s book #NoFly: Walking the Talk on Climate Change is published by BWB Texts.

Dr Shaun Hendy is a professor of physics at the University of Auckland. He is also Director of Te Pūnaha Matatini, a New Zealand Centre of Research Excellence focused on the study of complex systems and networks.

This article was first published in the February 2020 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.