Flight shaming has become a new sport among those wanting to change the world for the better. In their eyes everyone who boards a plane is indifferent to climate change and does not want to change habits. In the past I flew a lot and in the last one and a half years only once. I can now see that not every flight I took in the past will be needed in the future. People adapt and the expectation that you turn up at every meeting at the other end of the globe has become a lot less. That is good news for me and the environment equally.
But then there is the other side of things: humans are social animals and like any other species we get to know each other and build trust by meeting, spending time together and getting to know the other face to face. I have not been able to see some of my own colleagues for quite some time and despite talking to them at least once a week via video conference, they have become strangers to me. We are familiar with each other, but we miss the personal, the informal and the non-verbal interaction – all the things one experiences when meeting in the same space. The effect of this are a higher degree of irritation and a gradual decline in involvement of the other in decision-making. That has the positive effect that all branches of the company have become more independent and more self-managed, but it also leads to a certain loss of cohesion and exchange. I could also talk about similar developments in relation to my clients. Therefore, as soon as it is possible again I will meet my colleagues and clients face to face and to do that I will board a plane. Not because I want to fly, but because there is little to no alternative. A train from Rotterdam to Berlin takes 8 hours, and there is no way you can go there and back in one day. Not even in two days this works, since the first train in the morning gets you to Berlin in the afternoon – too late for an office meeting. And the last train back leaves around lunchtime and gives you no time to meet in the morning. Spending more than half a working week for one meeting is not really an option. And that is still a relatively short – distance. To get to Moscow or Shenzhen would not only require to be out of the office for weeks, but also would involve a fair amount of adventurous spirit and Zen mood to endure the monotonous journey through the endless plains of Eastern Europe and Siberia.
But flying is not inevitable. There could be viable alternatives. In China, I barely use the plane – I use the high speed train. It brings me in just over three hours from Shanghai to Beijing – something a flight is struggling to achieve and even the long distances – Beijing to Guangzhou, crossing the entire country with a travel time of eight hours are such, that flying is only marginally quicker – taking into account all the trips to and from the airport, all the checks and waiting times. I enjoy taking the train much more than taking the plane. I have more space, I can walk around, have lunch and there is a lot more to see. Why is there no international network of super high speed railway lines that connects all bigger cities? If a trip from Rotterdam to Berlin would take two hours – this is what it would take in China to cover the distance – then I would not even consider a plane. If a train journey from Amsterdam to Beijing would take 18 hours, then this would also be an easy choice. Maybe that is looking far into the future, but at least within the European Union we could establish that. If we really want to change the way we operate, we need to change the way we get around.
A high speed train network spanning the entire European Union not only would allow for that. It would also be a powerful showcase of the willingness of all Europeans to address climate change and the will to unite. It would not even need to start from scratch. Many countries already have their high speed networks that could be linked up to start with – following EU wide standards that allow trains running in the entire network. In a second step these could be improved and extended to close remaining gaps in the grid. Not only could we move people at high speed, we could also use this network for high speed freight transport for time critical goods – saving a lot of truck trips. All this costs a lot of money. The EU has dedicated billions for infrastructure upgrades – so why not using this money for such a purpose instead of building more roads and extending airports. It might not be the cheapest of all options, but China shows that strategic investment into such an infrastructure opens up new possibilities for and creates viable alternatives that are imperative when wanting to cope with global warming.