Flying and cognitive dissonance

I recently got engaged to my boyfriend of two and a half years. He’s from New Zealand. I’m from the UK. Not a big deal you might say – lots of couples get together who are from different countries. However, we both care deeply about tackling climate change and are trying to do what we can to reduce its negative impacts*; and yet we both know that flying is one of the most significant contributors to an individual’s carbon footprint. (For example, when I calculate my ecological footprint – WWF is the one I used – my footprint comes out at 154% of my share of the earth’s resources at 15.5 tonnes. 74% of this (i.e. almost half) comes from my return flight UK-NZ).

Carbon breakdown


Because of knowing how much flying contributes to my own personal carbon footprint, I have tried to limit how much I fly since I was 19 years old**. So marrying someone from the other side of the world poses a challenge. Cognitive dissonance best describes it: this is the discomfort experienced by a person who acts in a way that contradicts their beliefs, ideas or values.

Mike and I first met at a climate change conference in early 2014 in Cambridge, UK. (The irony is not lost on me). I never felt I could or wanted to end the relationship on the grounds of our places of origin, and what that means for the way we live life, but it has certainly posed me some wobbles and soul searching along the way, none more so since Mike proposed and I said yes.

Committing to a lifelong relationship with Mike will give us (and our future children) a need and want to travel between the UK and New Zealand. This is not compatible with my conviction that flying is something I as an individual should limit for the sake of climate change. I need to change my feeling that my own integrity is compromised. I need to internalize new approaches and new ways of thinking about how I can best tackle climate change and contribute to a sustainable world, in order to marry the person I love most in the world and live life to the full. This is the beginnings of my attempt to do that.

“Be the change you want to see in the world” – Mahatma Gandhi.

My theory of change centres around the immense power of individual action – the importance of every person doing what they can in their own lives to contribute to tackling climate change. This partly stems from the Gandhi quote above that I try to live my life by.

The full original quote is actually: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” (M.K. Gandhi, 1913, Vol 13, p241). This seems to be a slightly more nuanced meaning, that individuals do not operate in isolation; both personal and social transformation are required. So a willingness to alter my personal actions is necessary, but not sufficient.

I have been reflecting on the fact that whilst I can and should still live my daily life with the same attitude, these personal behaviours of mine are not enough to help foster the wider changes needed. I need to set my aspirations higher and contribute more to wider system and social change. As an example, I need to not only limit how often I get on a plane but also work on or support initiatives helping to reduce aviation and it’s emissions, and provide alternatives to flying. The likes of A Free Ride and VoyageVert are two such efforts that I have started contributing towards.


 “The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude… I am convinced that life is 10 per cent what happens to me and 90 per cent how I react to it. And so it is with you… We are in charge of our attitudes” – Charles Swindoll.

My attitude to this situation needs to shift, from worrying about sacrificing or compromising my values. As my friends and family argue, “that plane is going anyway!” – I have to take heed of this and remember that we, two people, will not actually determine whether a plane flies or not. Us not flying has the potential to send an economic signal, but only if a few plane’s worth of passengers do the same.

I need to instead value the opportunity that our global stretch gives me to meet more people, see more things and achieve more towards environmental sustainability as a result. It can increase and improve both my motivation to tackle environmental problems and my ability to do so.

I also need to remember that flying is a hugely beneficial and necessary activity for enabling a peaceful and globalized world, where people from different countries can easily experience and gain understanding of each other’s customs, ways of life and languages. Flying enables us all to make more and stronger connections between people and places, enabling positive outcomes such as translating successful actions and initiatives from one context to another, enhanced learning, beneficial collaborations, and mutual support and encouragement.

I must acknowledge that my personal actions are still consistent with my values and beliefs: I wouldn’t want to see a world without easy and rapid long-distance travel. I just want to see it happen in a more thoughtful way, based on strengthening links between cultures and countries. This is exactly the kind of flying I have done and will continue to do.

It will also give me more humility and understanding of everyone else finding it hard to make shifts in their lives towards greater environmental sustainability. This attitude shift is a gradual process but is being helped immensely by a decision Mike and I took after we got engaged…


“I must do something or I shall wear my heart away…” – Charles Dickens

My actions to contribute towards mitigating my own climate change impacts* (and Mike’s) now extend to encompass carbon offsetting – counteracting carbon dioxide emissions with an equivalent reduction of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is in recognition of our need to take more flights than if both of our families lived in the same country. We have accepted that given our situation this has to be part of the solution for us.

Giving money to enable more positive action will create very tangible benefit, so in this way, flying actually does mean we will create more positive benefit than if we didn’t fly. It feels especially pertinent since learning on my Seek The Change trip that most people running sustainability initiatives find that their greatest challenge is money.

Having said all this, I have always been sceptical of carbon offsetting, for a number of reasons:

  • Its potential to increase flying by assuaging guilt.
  • How and whether the calculations actually measure up.
  • Problems associated with additionality (whether the offsetting project actually does provide net positive outcomes) and leakage (whereby higher emissions can result outside of the project area).
  • It seems distinctly unfair to ask other countries to plant more forest so that the richest people in the wealthiest countries can keep flying around the world without a worry.

To mitigate these concerns, we are proactively investigating the initiatives we are giving to (contacting them, visiting them, blogging and talking about them). We are including those directly resulting in emissions reductions e.g. certified, accounted-for renewable energy and tree planting projects. We are also planning to give to indirect sustainability-focused projects, relating to education and empowerment. We will seek out projects in both developed and developing countries. We are giving 150% of the suggested amount of the most rigorous carbon offsetting calculator we could find ( We are engaging others in conversation about offsetting, its pitfalls and benefits and our ways of trying to ensure its positive effects.

Our donations so far have been to Recycle Beirut and VoyageVert as part of crowdfunding campaigns. The first provides a solution to the waste situation and the refugee crisis in Lebanon. The second is aiming towards wider change with its vision for fast sailing across oceans. We have also donated to a biogas digestor in Nepal via the atmosfair calculator.

Besides carbon offsetting, I will continue not to fly within Europe. If we are flying to New Zealand, we will extend our stopovers whenever possible, to investigate environmental initiatives and meet people working on them, making the most of the journey. I will continue to make and build connections between different people/groups/organisations/initiatives wherever I go, and make useful links where they have parallels and similarities.

In the longer term, Mike and I intend to also buy our own plot of land for planting trees, enhancing biodiversity and creating positive impact in a particular space – DIY carbon offsetting if you like. We would also hope to open it up for others to enjoy it, to gain benefits from it for enhanced well-being, increased connection to nature and learning opportunities for children (which is a whole other blog topic in itself).

These shifts all provide a useful starting point for us, whilst I continue to grapple with and realign my thinking with these new perspectives and convictions. I wanted to share them more widely because I am sure we are not the first couple to be in this kind of situation. I would welcome any constructive thoughts, experiences and perspectives of others. At its base, it seems to me to be such a core dilemma that anyone passionate about environmental issues faces: how to live a life creating positive impact, how to be able to experience the world and it’s wonders, and how to do so knowing that the very nature of living in modern human society creates negative effects.



*I work in the field of environmental sustainability, dedicating my career to trying to ‘make a difference’. I have introduced environmentally positive behaviour into more and more of my everyday lifestyle: buying clothes from charity shops, eating vegetarian and increasingly vegan food, buying people ‘experience’ presents rather than stuff, using a renewable electricity supplier, cycling and catching the train to get around in the UK, giving regularly to environmental charities and banking conscientiously. I do all this to try and be a living example of sustainable living,  acting in response to my knowledge of environmental problems, and contributing to my life goal of creating as much positive impact as I can in the world.

**The decision to limit the amount I fly has informed so much of how I live – rather than going down a standard career path, I have taken 6-month breaks every so often, to make the most of the flights I do take. I take trains and buses within Europe. I have not visited friends living abroad. When I travel I ‘travel with purpose’ – Seek The Change, the trip from which this blog started, is exactly that: (mostly) overland travel, meeting environmental initiatives, sharing experiences and learning.

One thought on “Flying and cognitive dissonance

  1. Hi Emily,

    I accidently found your blog when I was googeling for “flight” and “cognitive dissonance”.
    I appreciate how much you consider your ecological footprint.
    Still, I’m not quite convinced, if the compensation via one of these compensation-institutes are actually realy making a difference. I guess, at the end of the day, the best would really be to not fly at all (and still compensate, for the intense livestyle we all have anway). For example: I’m as a German cititzen are already producing roughly 2 tons of CO2 per year, just to maintain the German infrastructure, like streets, universites, hospitals etc.
    Or did you come up with any other good ideas in the meantime? I personally found it also very challenging. As a consequence, I decided to not fly at all anymore for private reasons, and for work-related purposes only when it’s really necessary. As an example, I just declined free flights from Germany to Beijing, Mexiko and New Zealand. And I’m not mentioning this to brag, but to prove that I’m also in the middle of a process. I flew a lot in the past myself. And allthough I’d love to see and travel these countries, I guess it’s not right, from an ethical point of view. Good luck with your challanges in the future! :) I hope, more people would critically reflect their carbon footprint like you do.


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