A Traveller’s Response to Flight Shame
Flygskam is a Swedish word meaning flight shame; the guilt you feel about the environmental impact of that plane ticket you just bought. It became a popular term in 2019, largely due to the influence of Greta Thunberg and her endorsement of the concept.
Planes damage the environment in a way that isn’t easy to fix. In Norway, 60% of new car registrations are for electric vehicles suggesting that diesel and petrol cars may soon be a thing of the past. But the largest fully electric plane has just nine seats and has only ever flown for 30 minutes.
It’ll be a long time before planes run on clean energy. Time which we don’t have.
Though I’m no advocate for inducing feelings of shame in people, the concept seems to be working. In countries where flight shame is most widely talked about, flight bookings are dropping. To the point that Scandinavian Airlines is facing an existential crisis and racing to offset their carbon emissions.
But is flight shame the answer to the climate crisis?
Origin of Flight Shame
The concept of Flygskam seems to date back only to 2017. It was supposedly coined by a Swedish singer called Staffan Lindberg, who made a public pledge to give up flying completely and urged others to do the same.
Lindberg was quickly joined by other public figures. Most notably Malena Ernman, opera singer and mother of Greta Thunberg, announced she would no longer be buying flights.
Greta spread this message to the ends of the Earth in 2019, when she began her double crossing of the Atlantic ocean in a racing yacht. This is when travellers, like me, realised that air travel was not necessary.
I can’t deny the environmental cost of flying.
The Ecological Cost of Flying
Let’s start with the good news: the vast majority of the world’s population have never travelled by plane. As flights become cheaper and the world wealthier, however, this could change and THAT could be disastrous.
- On a slow day, more than 100,000 flights are made each day. In July 2019, this number rose to 230,000.
- If the current rate of increase continues, 7.2 billion people will fly each year by 2035
- Offsetting carbon is not enough. Flights account for just 2% of carbon emissions. The real harm comes from nitrogen oxides, particulates, water vapour, cirrus, and contrails. This more than doubles the contribution flying has to global warming – it’s at least 5% at this point.
- A single trip from Germany to the Caribbean emits four metric tons of carbon dioxide. It would take 80 average Tanzanians to cause as much damage over an entire year.
There is no single human activity that causes as much environmental damage in such a short space of time as taking a flight. It won’t solve the climate crisis, but if you stop taking planes, it goes a long way to help.
Travel and the Spread of Environmentalism
So should we stop flying altogether? Probably. If you can. But we must keep travelling.
The average Tanzanian may have a tiny carbon footprint, but this is out of necessity rather than choice. Residents of Sweden and Norway are lucky to have access to the greatest academic minds, who have been behind this push towards environmentalism.
But if cultures don’t interact and connect, then these messages won’t spread. Nationalities, cultures, and concepts need to mix in order for the best, most evidence-backed ideas to become mainstream.
Ideas like freedom, democracy, tolerance, human rights and ecologism: they spread when people do.
The internet can help feed information around the world, but real physical interaction remains vital.
It’s pretty hard to get to Tanzania without flying, so there may be times when we decide to board these flights in the name of environmentalism or some other worthy cause. Instead of giving up flying completely, some people may choose to lower their carbon footprints in other ways.
For instance, I don’t drive and have adopted a minimalist low-consumption lifestyle. Do I do enough? Absolutely not. But we can all take steps beyond just giving up flights.
Instead, I encourage people to change their flying habits, to be able to justify each flight, and to take steps to achieve carbon neutrality. If flight shame gets us there, then long live flight shame.