Why flight shaming won’t take off

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 draughts, 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.

Global demand for air travel is set to quadruple over the next 30 years

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 earthling 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.

Rather than flying, climate activist Greta Thunberg took a train to Davos and a boat to New York

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.

Europe has a densely-woven network of high-speed rail lines

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.

Passengers check in at an airport in China

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.

Will short-haul flights be electric a couple of decades from now?

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.

Cancelled out

Ultimately, flight shaming remains a concept that has traction mostly in European countriesw ith 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 trave 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.

Can Electric Cars Drive Global Decarbonisation?

nancy-vandyckeBy Nancy L. Vandycke, Program Manager, Sustainable Mobility for All Initiative, World Bank

Can one plus one be more than two? I believe that it can. In fact, I would wager that we must find opportunities to do so if we are serious about delivering our goals for the Paris Climate Agreement. The transport-energy nexus is precisely a place where we can find such opportunities; more specifically, I am talking about the possibility of global decarbonisation through the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). That said, we must always be aware of potential pitfalls. Allow me to share my experience.

The promise of global emission reduction

In 2017, transport accounted for 24 per cent of total CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. To reduce emissions, many countries have been promoting the electrification of transport. For many, adopting the trend for EVs is a way to transition passenger fleet away from conventional gasoline and diesel-fuelled cars. In fact, last year, global sales of EV surpassed a million units. Under the current trend, EV production could almost quadruple by 2020, with China leading the way.

34851733984_ef336560fa_kAs more and more EVs replace internal combustion vehicles, the energy burden for transport will eventually shift from oil to electricity. This is good news for the power sector. By riding on the trend of increased EVs, it can become part of a solution for global decarbonisation.

There is an added bonus for the power sector. For years, its profitability has been in decline. Charging EVs will add some load to the power grid, which is a welcome development for utilities against the continued decline in electricity prices.

Such a scenario seems promising, but there are potential pitfalls along the way.

The pitfalls

For a long time now, the transport and energy sectors have been talking about decarbonisation in their own circles.

As I sat in conversations with industry leaders from each sector—both in my role as the lead for Sustainable Mobility for All (SuM4All) and as a member of the World Economic Forum (WEF) global council on advanced energy technologies—I came to realise how disconnected the conversations about decarbonisation are. If we were to connect the two sectors, we must bring them to sit at the same table.

Accordingly, SuM4All invited experts in the energy sector to the table at our last consortium meeting in January 2019. However, it soon became clear that each side is speaking about decarbonisation in their own language and neither side could understand the other. Until both sides find a common language and tie their conversations together, it is unlikely that developments in these respective industries will succeed at decarbonising the global economy.

sum4all-consortium-meeting.jpg

Even if both sides manage to come to an agreement on a common language and approach, one must be thoughtful about the way both sectors collaborate.

As of today, renewable energy accounts for merely a quarter of total global power generation. Without greening the power grid, a wholesale adoption of EVs will not result in true decarbonisation in either sector. Half of the G20 countries have made progress in expanding renewable electricity generation in the years leading up to 2015, but, alarmingly, nine saw declines in 2015 and the preceding years. Reducing the carbon intensity of power generation is what matters in the end.

But this transformation will not happen overnight. As the share of renewables increases in the energy mix, the carbon intensity of energy production will also increase. In fact, in the short term, one expects an overall increase in carbon emissions with the EV deployment, simply because of the EV battery manufacturing.

The way forward

The good news is that if we manage to co-ordinate policy interventions within the transport and energy sectors, we can make great strides towards decarbonisation. For example, policy support measures that target electrification in the transport sector should be linked to renewable requirements on the energy side.  For this reason, I plan to bring a clear and simple message to the Electric and Digital Mobility event ahead of the upcoming ITF Summit: to fully leverage the power of mobility, we need to concurrently clean up the grid.

If we manage to do so, one plus one can indeed be more than two, and the Paris Climate Agreement goals will be very much within our reach.

Nancy L. Vandycke is a speaker at the TUMIVolt Conference on 21 May 2019 in Leipzig, Germany. The ITF Summit follows from 22-24 May.