Exploding demand for air travel, low ticket prices and the simple ease of flying make it hard for the flight shaming movement to develop truly global momentum
By Emma Latham-Jones
Since 2017, there has been a surge in the number of northern European campaigners boycotting air travel for leisure. But this so-called flygskam (“flight shaming”) movement is up against the lure of low prices for air tickets, the sheer convenience of flying and a rapidly growing number of air travelers particularly in the newly prosperous Asian countries.
Flygskam has arisen from a broader concern that man-made climate change poses a serious threat to people’s livelihoods around the globe. Rising temperatures cause droughts, rising sea levels threaten low-lying regions, and ever more extreme weather leads to severe disruptions.
International aviation is responsible for only 2% of all man-made CO2 emissions. But this does not take into account the warming impact of aircrafts’ non-CO2 emissions. Planes also emit other substances such as contrails, aerosols, nitrogen oxides and particle emissions that are a major contributor to the warming impact of aircraft. Scientists have shown that non-CO2 emissions occurring at high altitudes have a much stronger climate impact than those produced by other modes of transport.
A record number or air travellers
Since 2010, international flights (measured in passenger-kilometres) have increased by 61%. In 2018, a record 4.3 billion airline passengers were counted, up 6.1% from the year before. Between now and 2050, demand for air travel could again triple, according to the most recent projections by the International Transport Forum.
If airlines were treated as a country, they would already now be among the ten biggest greenhouse gas emitters ahead of Brazil, Mexico and the UK, the Union of Concerned Scientists notes. “Even trying to stabilise aviation CO2 emissions at today’s level is challenging”, explains Andreas W. Schäfer, Professor of Energy and Transport at University College London and Director of the Air Transportation Systems Laboratory. “This is due to the strong growth of the sector, its capital intensity, the comparatively limited number of mitigation options and longtime constants—half of the aircraft introduced today will still be operating at mid-century.”
Of all transport-related CO2 emissions, aviation contributes over 10%. And transport’s carbon footprint has grown faster than that of any other sector over the past 50 years. The main reason is the rapidly growing demand for mobility – not least for air travel. In 2017, an average person flew once every 22 months – twice as frequently as in the year 2000.
Flygskam gains momentum
Flygskam was originally championed by Swedish singer Staffan Lindberg and Olympic athlete Bjorn Ferry and gained momentum thanks to social media and the so-called “Greta Thunberg effect”: The Swedish teenage climate activist made her – widely publicised – trip to the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos entirely by train.
This gave birth to tagskryt (“train-bragging”), soon popularised by a Facebook group in which Swedes share stories of, and tips from, their journeys via train. The group now has 14.6K followers. Greta Thunberg has since moved to on to another emissions-free transport mode, sailing across the Atlantic to New York for the United Nations’ Climate Action Summit on a sleek hydrofoil yacht, the Malizia II.
Could Flygskam kick-start change in behavior on a scale big enough to counteract the predicted boom in global air travel? Three main reasons make this seem doubtful.
Lack of alternatives
First, the lack of more sustainable alternatives for many flight routes. Europe and East Asia have well-developed high speed rail network. All bar two of the 20 countries with the best high-speed rail links are in Europe and East Asia. Among the extensive high-speed rail networks in Europe there are now many international links across orders. In these regions, travellers can fairly easily switch from air to rail, certainly for shorter flights. Indeed, Japan’s high-speed Shinkansen train has a greater market share than air transport on domestic routes under 600 kilometres.
The picture in other parts of the world looks much less positive. In North America, the United States have no train line that is entirely high speed. The Acela Express that links New York and Washington, D.C., has an average speed of 106 km/h, less than half the speed of most high-speed trains. California is building a high-speed rail system, but its first phase won’t be completed until 2029.
The fastest train from San Francisco to Los Angeles takes 9 hours and 18 minutes. Any of more than one dozen airlines gets you there in 90 minutes. And “even where there is good alternative infrastructure, high-speed rail often simply cannot compete with the low prices and convenience of short-haul flights,” explains Jagoda Egeland, Aviation Policy Lead at the International Transport Forum.
No Chinese word for flygskam
A second reason why flight shaming may not take off is the soaring demand for air travel in Asia. There simply is no sign that newly prosperous Chinese, Indonesians or Uzbeks intend to forgo the pleasures of flying to Paris or Phuket.
The Asia-Pacific recorded the biggest numbers of overall aviation passengers in 2017, with 1.5 billion passengers and a 36.3% market share. The region also saw the highest year-over-year increase in traffic and had the five busiest international airline routes. The Asia-Pacific region “will account for up to half of total annual increase in air traffic by 2020,” predicted Shukor Yusof, an aviation expert at Endau Analytics, in a conversation with Deutsche Welle.
China is the engine of much of this demand growth. The 400 million members of its relatively new middle class have an increasing thirst for exploring the world. Within the next decade, China will overtake the USA as the largest aviation market in the world. But currently there isn’t a word for flygskam in Chinese.
Biofuels against flight shaming
A final factor that may contain flygskam are biofuels. Significantly, Northern Europe, where flight shaming originated, is now pushing hard towards making the fuel mix used for air travel less objectionable. The Swedish government has set a tax on avfuel – previously untaxed – and is contemplating to require 30% biofuels to be blended into kerosene by 2030.
Norway already requires 0.5% biofuel for airlines operating in the country and also targets 30% by 2030. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) also calls for a significant proportion of conventional aviation fuels to be substituted with sustainable aviation fuels by 2050 in its 2050 Vision for Sustainable Aviation Fuels.
The problem is that scaling up the production of biofuels may be difficult, and that growing more of the organic matter required for biofuels can actually increase greenhouse gas emissions. Which is why offsetting emissions is important. The ICAO’s 192 member countries agreed a global deal called CORSIA in 2016 that committed aviation to achieving carbon-neutral growth from 2020 and to halve net emissions levels by 2050 compared to 2005. Any rise in international aviation emissions above 2020 levels will be offset, mostly through planting trees. While some of the largest environmental NGOs argue that the carbon stored in trees or biological carbon is not equivalent to fossil carbon, this may still help travellers to feel less guilt about flying.
Electricity plus efficiency
Electrification of aircraft is another hotly pursued aviation innovation since explorers Bertrand Picard and André Borschberg demonstrated the viability of the concept with their circumnavigation of the globe in their solar-powered “Solar Impulse 2” aircraft in 2016. Electric aircraft are now being introduced by airlines in the US and in Canada. Norway has made the electrification of short-haul aviation by 2040 its official policy target.
This would have a truly drastic effect: Electrification of short-haul flights and more stringent carbon pricing would cut CO2 emissions from domestic aviation by as much as 81% and those of (mostly longer-haul) international aviation by 19% by 2050, according to the ITF’s Transport Outlook 2019.
In the meantime, upgrades that increase the efficiency of conventional engines will likely continue, and the question of life-cycle emissions is also being addressed: The Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe has set itself some challenging environmental goals that include ensuring all aircraft are designed and manufactured to be recyclable.
Ultimately, flight shaming remains a concept that has traction mostly in European countries with already environmentally engaged citizens. The idea is unlikely to make a difference to consumers’ travel behaviour across the globe, as it is not catching on in some of the world’s largest aviation markets and is easily cancelled out by exploding demand for air travel.
However, the aviation industry is taking note of the movement. Airlines fear reputational damage and are keen to find ways to ensure their services will be less obvious targets for being branded as “shameful” by climate activists – and they are even willing to forgo some business: In reaction to flygskam, Dutch airline KLM recently launched a platform called “Fly Responsibly”: The website invites passengers to compensate for their travel CO2 – and also highlights that getting to Brussels from Amsterdam is faster by train than by plane.
Emma Latham-Jones is a Young Associate at the International Transport Forum at the OECD.