Lisbon Oriente train station. (Photo: Gavin McCrory)

Lisbon Oriente train station. (Photo: Gavin McCrory)

It’s hard to imagine life without aviation. Planes fly every day, delivering people and goods around the world. Many of us fly each year, if not more.

We need not look far to see signs of air travel. We see planes when we look up at the sky. They feature in movies and commercials. Many songs have been written about airplanes and flight. If you’re like me, you might have dreamed about being a flight attendant or keep a stack of old boarding passes tucked away.

You might be surprised to know that there are about 10,000 planes in the sky right now.

Aviation has shrunk the world and placed it at our fingertips. Since the plane was invented at the turn of the last century, its has done more than carry us across the globe. Flight has propelled mankind to overcome the ‘impossible’ and look as deep into the universe as Mars. But when it comes to our planet, the affordability of flights (I once flew from Pisa to Paris for 7 Euros) and the convenience of online booking has turned aviation into a rather detrimental innovation.

The airline industry has become a major contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, which contribute to global warming. Last year, the industry produced 895 million tonnes of CO2. As more people take to the skies more frequently, some are on a mission to fight climate change. Perhaps the most committed of these climate activists are ‘no plane pioneers’.

Tagging along on Luke’s masters program reunion trip to Lisbon, I met a group of like-minded individuals who take various approaches to the world’s sustainability issues — but only one made the journey flight-free.

Born and bred in a working-class community in Belfast, Gavin McCrory now lives and studies in Gothenburg, Sweden. His research on the role of urban sustainability transitions explores how to promote fairer, more sustainable ways to live in cities in the future. He’s interested in the way small, novel projects can catalyze changes in values, beliefs, technologies, policies, and ultimately, systems. Naturally, he not only studies these principles but embodies them himself.

Gavin had come from Gothenburg to Lisbon by train to attend a young researcher conference and present his work. The conference took place from April 4-5th at the Centre for Environmental and Sustainability Research in NOVA University Lisbon. Thus, Lisbon became the meeting point for their reunion.

As one can imagine, making the Gothenburg-Lisbon return trip by train is not nearly as easy as flying. What comes easily for most is questioning whether going flight-free actually makes a difference. People who doubt the power of individual climate action may be quick to point out that most carbon output occurs at the hands of a select and wealthy few corporations, and that great change depends on policy. While there is truth in that, our collective action and inaction are both to blame for this climate crisis.

While Gavin’s commitment to going flight-free may not make a great dent on today’s carbon output, he serves as a role model in the way that he considers his footprint to make travel and lifestyle choices. Gavin is an inspiration, especially to those exploring models of mindful and sustainable travel. Equal parts “enlightening and frustrating”, here’s Gavin on his flight-free journey through eight countries.

Gavin (far right) looking out over Lisbon.

Gavin (far right) looking out over Lisbon.

Why did you choose to go flight-free? 

Although I wanted to avoid flying for various reasons, my central motivation was environmental. As a European living in a Scandinavian country, I’m well aware that we tend to lead lives that are significantly more carbon intensive than in other places and contexts. 

As a researcher, I’ve started to become more aware that most of the carbon emissions connected to universities are a direct result of the way that their employees choose to move. Studies are now showing that (1) academics fly a lot, (2) the main motivation is to attend conferences and (3) a majority of a PhD’s carbon footprint may be from plane travel. I think that on top of this, it’s often stressed that in order to grow as professionals we must network, attend events, and create international connections. Sometimes, this leads to the belief that frequent air travel equates to success.

I wanted to challenge this norm a bit by making a promise to myself to actively reduce flying for both personal and professional trips. I chose to travel from Sweden to Portugal by train and bus. As you can imagine, deciding not to fly creates some extra stress and requires more planning. The conference in Lisbon was the farthest I had travelled without flying, working out to around 7,000 km in total. 

How did people react to your plan?

I’d say that most of the people I spoke to were supportive of what I wanted to do and my reasons for it. Work colleagues tended to be curious about how I could logistically plan and manage to get across eight countries by bus and train. When I arrived back to work, I did find that others were interested in my motivations for not flying, especially as a researcher. I was asked questions like, “Would you have flown if the planes were fueled by renewable energy?” and “Did you not feel restless on the trip?” and “How did you even manage this?” I noticed that there were a group of colleagues that share a similar commitment in changing the way they travel.  

I’m lucky enough to have a strong circle of friends who I share similar values with, especially about sustainability and social change. My family live in Northern Ireland and I think we have quite divergent views on sustainability. This often makes conversations around choices that I make – for example to neither eat meat nor fly – tricky to navigate. When I mentioned the train/bus plan, I was met with, “Why would you do this? It makes no sense. It’s so much quicker and cheaper to fly.”

In Europe, this is quite a normal response. Large parts of our lives are organized around particular modes of transport. For some, cars and planes symbolize ideals such as freedom or exploration. For others, both can have quite devastating impacts at different scales, some of which are quite removed from the people using them. Cars have been central in shaping cities in the last 50 years, often through centralized planning processes and hard infrastructure such as roads and bridges. 

Though more recently we have started to feel the acute environmental impacts of smog and air pollution, both of which disproportionately affect people at the ground level. Likewise, flying is one of the most polluting activities we can do, and the impacts of emissions from flying are not equally felt within and across countries.   

Train platform view in Merida, Spain. (Photo: Gavin McCrory)

Train platform view in Merida, Spain. (Photo: Gavin McCrory)

How was your experience overall? What were some of the challenges you faced?

If I could describe my overall experiences in two words I would say: enlightening and frustrating. I take away with me a sense of enthusiasm and relief that it is possible to imagine futures where flying can be avoided, at least for others in certain positions of privilege like myself. By travelling by bus or train, I felt more connected to the places I passed through. 

The trip included a mix of shorter and longer journeys (18 to be exact) and a little ferry trip from Germany to Denmark. In terms of time it took 5 days – 2ish days on the way to Lisbon and around 2.5 days on the return leg. Whether I was grabbing a pretzel and a beer at the train station in Cologne, strolling through the quite streets of Merida, stopping in Paris for a croissant, or staying with close friends in Brussels, I take many more experiences back with me in a more lived way than would ever be possible from above in a plane.  

Choosing to travel sustainably can definitely be a frustrating process. You’ll have to change platform and station several times in one large journey, and you’re quite dependent on the reliability of each service provider along the way. At any moment things can go awry. I would be lying if I said that all the trips ran smoothly. In reality, both legs were full of close-calls, near-misses, and last-minute adjustments.

This started during the first leg in Scandinavia. I arrived at Copenhagen train station at 7 am for the trip to Hamburg only to find out that the train had been cancelled because of a strike. On the way back, I had a minor emotional breakdown at Lisbon Oriente bus station at the beginning of my most stressful day of travelling ever. My 9 am bus to Merida, Spain failed to show up, with no information as to why. I needed to get to Merida by 2 pm to catch connecting trains to both Madrid and Barcelona. I searched for car-sharing services to Merida that would get me there on time. Nothing. 

After sitting on a bench for about 5 minutes, it started to feel like I might never get out of there. It’s easy to feel helpless and without control when things just don’t go according to plan. After about 45 minutes, a bus from a different company showed up, with the destination “Merida” written on a little piece of cardboard. I told customer service that my bus didn’t arrive, and they pointed at this and said, “it’s yours”. The driver came in with a sheet of paper with names printed out and, to my disbelief, I was on it. As if that wasn’t enough, a train delay from Merida to Madrid left me with 4 minutes to run through Madrid Atocha train station – one of the busiest stations in Europe – to catch my train to Barcelona. Then my night bus from Brussels to Copenhagen was 2 hours late, and all trains from Lund – Gothenburg were cancelled. It’s kind of funny though that the only full cancellations occurred when I was leaving Denmark and returning to Sweden – the two trips that I had expected to be the most reliable.  

Gavin McCrory Journey.png

I do worry that we’re quite far away from having the technical infrastructure and cultural changes needed to really normalize flight-free travel so that they appeal to those currently not using them. Though, there are more and more interesting initiatives popping up every day that are challenging these norms, built from communities of concern and strengthened by the sharing of every story. These include the global Critical Mass cycling movement, cycling logistics services like MOVEBYBiKE and car sharing services like BlaBlaCar. There is also a growing community of no-flying pioneers, both inside and outside of academia, who are trying to collectively redefine what it means to travel in ways that are less damaging for the planet.   

Was cost a factor?

In this case, I was lucky enough to be able to travel using funding as part of my PhD. Although this wasn’t a factor for me in this case, I do reckon price would be a factor if I was travelling for a holiday. I found myself feeling a little bit uncomfortable at the total cost of the trains and buses when compared to a flight ticket to Lisbon. My main message around price is that flight-free travelling requires a degree of savviness when booking trips. One way around this for me was to buy a 5-day global inter-rail pass, which came at a fixed cost for the return trip. Despite the pass, some regional trains did require seat reservations which can hike the price. In total, the travels worked out around 5,000 kr, which is about 500 Euro.   

Sunset in Brussels on the way to Lisbon. (Photo: Gavin McCrory)

Sunset in Brussels on the way to Lisbon. (Photo: Gavin McCrory)

How much of a difference did it make to take the train vs. fly? How do you measure that? 

In short, it will probably be better for the environment to travel by train than to fly in every case. 

It’s unlikely that choosing to take the train will increase your carbon footprint when compared to flying. However, it’s not that simple to inform yourself on the exact figures: trying to find out the carbon footprint of travelling is no exact science. It depends on a number of different things like the type of train, whether the train/plane was fully booked, whether the flight was direct or indirect, and even the energy mix in each country. For example, having a sleeper-cabin on a night train to yourself could skew the emissions for that particular leg in favour of other forms of transport. 

There are several online calculators that you can use to estimate your carbon footprint. I used Travel & Climate to calculate my Lisbon trip and the trip from Gbg to Brighton. Had I have flown direct; I would have emitted around 0.85 tonnes CO2e (tCO2e). By travelling by bus and train, I managed to reduce my output to around 0.28 tCO2e. In total that’s a saving of around 0.6 tCO2e (66%) – this is the equivalent of one person eating a plant based-diet for one year. 

I don’t think the most crucial thing is whether we can calculate outputs to exact decimal figure. I think that we need to recognize that flights are not only heavily polluting in their own right. They reinforce a way of moving that sustains the fossil fuel industry at a time when we need to be swiftly decarbonizing our patterns of producing and consuming, living and moving. 

What other sustainable lifestyle choices do you subscribe to? 

Over the last 5 years, I’ve gradually tried to change the way I live. This hasn’t been a one-off switch, and many of the choices I’m going to mention were naturally quite tough to consider at the beginning. My first decision was to phase out meat, eggs, and most dairy from my diet when I first moved to Lund. I never drove, mostly because I’m quite critical of the role that they have in our cities. That made public transport and cycling quite easy to prioritize day to day.

In the last two years, I’ve started to enjoy cycling as my main way of moving – last summer I cycled along the Outer Hebrides in Scotland, and this summer I planned a multi-day bike trip. I feel like here’s something liberating about being able to move yourself large distances on two wheels, carrying only essentials and relying on your senses and body. In terms of consumer goods, I try to be conscious when I buy new products – for example, I buy mostly used clothes and second-hand items. I think moving around has helped me in being less materialistic than I may have been before. I’ve experimented with zero-waste months and was vegan for around a year between 2018 and 2019.  

One larger switch that I have made has been to try and normalize these actions in the everyday. This makes cycling, eating vegetarian, and buying second-hand all seem more rational. By reframing my choices – not as sacrifices that I need to make, but as new opportunities – I think it becomes easier to treat them as normal practices in my day-to-day life.

Lifestyle changes can be quite powerful in allowing individuals to take control of their lives and remain accountable for what they do, as well as in creating communities that can identify with certain lifestyle values. Instilling some kind of thinking at the individual and community level can help in thinking about how our local actions relate to larger social and environmental issues.  

Lisbon family gathering. (Photo: Gavin McCrory)

Lisbon family gathering. (Photo: Gavin McCrory)

Share an anecdote from your travels

Ever since my childhood I’ve been known for being a little clumsy and injury-prone. Knocking over cups, tripping on steps, slipping or falling in very normal settings, and cutting, spraining, or breaking things. You name it, I’ve probably done it. During a dinner with other PhDs from the conference I slipped on a step in a central plaza in Lisbon. The beers might have had something to do with it, but I still maintain that a sneaky step appeared out of the side of a raised platform! 

I ended up with a pretty nasty sprained ankle and was faced with the daunting task of trying and get back to my hostel with only one working foot. Luckily, an Irish PhD student, Duncan, was kind enough to take me under his wing. He invited me to his home on the outskirts of Lisbon, where I could stay and recover without having to move around too much. I like to think that I believe in the kindness and selflessness of strangers, but when I travel, I tend to be cautious in opening up and building trust with those that I don’t know. This time, I decided to go with it.

One day on the mend turned into a full weekend filled with endless spontaneous chats and conversations, shared interests, amazing local food and wine. I learned about the history of Lisbon and Portugal and discussed the role of local, grassroots movements in cities. We also shared our experiences after leaving Ireland, as well as the cultural differences in the places that we have lived in. I was invited for dinner to the home of Duncan’s friend, surrounded by their family and friends. Rather than eating and leaving, we played music into the night and enjoyed a home performance from the son of the family, a talented musician, eco-village owner and lecturer. The son performed Fado, a genre of music with roots in Lisbon and lyrics that often express struggle, loss, and exploitation.

The next day I left Duncan’s home with a rested foot. I also brought with me a list of inspiring books, connections, and memories. Reflecting on it, this weekend now feels a little surreal. Although I hurt my foot, I allowed myself to be vulnerable and trust the good intentions of another in a chance encounter. Experiences like this are a nice reminder of how social connections can form quickly and unintentionally, and that moments of serendipity can lead to unforgettable memories.  

The night train from Henaye to Lisbon. (Photo: Gavin McCrory)

The night train from Henaye to Lisbon. (Photo: Gavin McCrory)

Tips for long-haul train travel? 

The tips or pieces of advice that come to mind relate to more practical aspects of travelling. Spending days on a bus or train may not seem like the most comfortable thing in the world, but there are definitely some things that you can do to make sure that you stay well-fed and well-rested.

When it comes to food, without some preparation you might end up eating quite boring meals or being reliant on train station diets. This is even more difficult if you suffer from any allergies or intolerances, or if you are vegetarian or vegan. It was quite clear how access to veggie-friendly options became scarcer as I travelled southwards. Through Spain and Portugal, it got to the point where stations didn’t really have any snacks other than crisps. On the night train across Spain the vegetarian warm meal – a plate of microwaved white rice, carrots and broccoli – was more expensive than any meat option. If you’ve been travelling for 20 hours in a row, these kinds of trade-offs or compromises can really test your resolve.

Likewise, a storable eye mask and earplugs will help when on night buses to block out the hustle and bustle of other people. These types of small preparations – a snack box, a prep-pack and a good book/podcast – may be as important for sustaining the motivation to travel flight-free as reminding yourself of the emissions that you save by taking the bus or boat. 

Book or podcast recommendations?

I’ve recently fallen in love with a podcast called ‘No Such Thing As A Fish’, developed by the makers of the British panel show ‘QI’. Within each episode you can expect four random facts, too many side stories to keep track of, and a load of laughter. In the same episode it’s possible to find out about theatre fights in Victorian London, the dangerous bowel movements of sloths, and the German sausage police from the WWII. 

Would you travel this way again? 

Absolutely – this wasn’t the first time I avoided flying and it won’t be the last. 

Climate action and open dialogue is important to us. If you have any thoughts or questions for Gavin, please comment below!