Climate anxiety: Why we won’t be flying home for Christmas

Generic image of a young woman on a commercial flight. She wears a grey hoodie and has curly brown hair tied back in a messy bun. She has headphones in her ears and is looking out of the window. A row of seats is visible in front of her
Image caption,By choosing not to fly, Shaun and Aliza will miss out on seeing their families this Christmas

By Riyah Collins

BBC Newsbeat

Whether it’s driving, hopping on the train or catching a bus, there’s a chance you’ll be packing a bag and heading home for Christmas.

For most of us, there isn’t much that would keep us away from family over the festive period.

But some people, like activists Aliza Ayaz and Sean Currie, have made the choice to put the environment above everything else.

They won’t be seeing their relatives this year after they decided to drastically limit or stop flying altogether.

Aliza tells BBC Newsbeat thinking about flights brings “the anxiety of ‘Oh my God, I can’t do it because of the carbon footprint’.

“But also, my parents could really use seeing me because I’m their eldest daughter.”

Aliza was born in Dubai to Pakistani parents who now live in Saudi Arabia.

She studies at University College London, where she set up its Climate Action Society, and is now a UN youth ambassador for sustainable development.

The 25-year-old says her anxiety never goes away “because the carbon footprint of one flight is so enormous, especially a long-haul flight”.

According to the International Civil Aviation Organization’s emissions calculator, a return flight from London to Riyadh generates about 620kg of CO2 per passenger.

Aliza Ayaz holding a basket of baked pastries. Aliza is a 25-year-old south Asian woman with long brown hair and brown eyes. She wears a black apron over a green short sleeved top and tilts her head towards the basket she's holding at chest height with both hands. She's pictured inside in front of a brick wall with a bench and table in the background
Image caption,Aliza is currently studying in London but her parents live in Saudi Arabia

It’s a similar story for Sean Currie. The 26-year-old left his family home in the Scottish Highlands and moved to Belgium for work in 2019.

He’s since decided to stop flying, and admits the journey over land and sea takes so long that he no longer visits very often.

“For three years I didn’t see my half-sister or niece,” he says.

Sean says his other sister lives in the Philippines – an 18-hour flight away – and he’s “just come to terms with the fact that I will never visit her”.

“I don’t think that I can justify to myself the impact that it has on the world,” he says.

Sean works with Stay Grounded, a group which campaigns for the aviation industry to be made smaller.

He says his main activities are “non-disruptive”, including lobbying and writing to politicians, but he has also been involved in direct protests.

Sean recently joined a group of hundreds who blocked access to two airports in Europe.

While these types of tactics are sometimes criticised when used by groups such as Just Stop Oil, Sean tells Newsbeat his more direct activities target private jets and not everyday travellers.

But he says he doesn’t condemn protests that might affect the lives of ordinary people.

“The disruption that will be caused by drought, floods and food shortages will be a whole lot more disruptive that somebody sitting in traffic,” he says.

Sean Currie. Sean is a 26-year-old white man with short brown hair and a cropped ginger beard. He wears clear round-framed glasses and has a gold hoop in his right ear. He wears a denim jacket over a patterned blue shirt and is photographed in front of a brick wall.
Image caption,Sean rarely travels home to Scotland, which can take about a day on public transport

Sean counts himself as lucky that, even if the journeys are long, trains and buses are an option for him.

“Train travel can be a wonderful thing,” he says. “But, to be honest, I don’t enjoy buses.”

Neither of those are realistic options for Aliza though.

She can’t totally rule out getting on a plane so made the decision to limit herself to one flight a year, taking an extended trip to make it as worthwhile as possible.

While her parents have been supportive, she says “you can see that they’re upset in their eyes, and they would like to see more of me and I would like to see more of them”.

She’ll instead spend Christmas with her partner’s family in Leeds, while Sean heads to his wife’s family home in Italy on the train.

‘Things have changed’

Instead the pair will rely on technology to feel connected to their families.

“We’ll get on a call together, we’ll cook meals together or mum will watch us and then we’ll talk about everything from our days,” Aliza says.

Sean and his family play online games together and he has a special routine with his sister in the Philippines, which is seven hours ahead of Belgium.

“My sister adapts her schedule so that when she calls us she’s still in some type of Christmas mood,” he says.

“She makes sure that she opens some presents when she’s on the call, even if it means leaving them unopened most of the day.”

But there are some things he misses back home, particularly a big Hogmanay party.

“There’s a real kind of tradition around it in my village that I love to be part of,” he says.

Aliza Ayaz (left) with her sister and mother. Aliza is a 25-year-old South Asian woman with long brown hair worn loose. She wears a sparkly blue blouse and leans into her sister, who also has long dark hair and wears a light pink top. Her mother is on the end and wears a pale green top. They are pictured in front of a wallpaper decorated with leaves and foliage.
Image caption,Aliza (lefT) says she can tell her decision not to fly is “heartbreaking” for her family who want to see her more

Although they stand by their decisions not to fly this Christmas, sometimes Sean and Aliza grapple with the sacrifice.

“I do wonder how meaningful it is for me to cut down my flying, especially when there’s so many factors that make you feel that it’s unfair,” Aliza says.

“There’s people often doing short-haul trips, multiple holidays in a year, and I don’t even get to see my family.”

But Anna Hughes – the director of Flight Free UK, a charity which encourages people to pledge to not fly for a year – says it’s important to know that individuals can make a difference.

“The majority of flights come from people flying from on holiday,” she says.

Anna believes if enough people choose alternative travel like trains or destinations closer to home, the industry will respond to that.

She uses veganism as an example, saying: “I’ve been vegan for about 10 years and when I started, people would just look at me funny and offer me a salad.

“Now they give me a menu. Things have changed, and they change quickly.

“We all have to remember that our individual action does say something.”

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