It started in Sweden, where the term flygskam (flight shame) was coined in 2018 to describe the unease about flying experienced by environmentally conscious travellers. The hashtag #jagstannarpåmarken (which translates as #stayontheground) came into use around the same time, as groups sprang up to share tips.
Other wealthy countries are not immune from such trends: a recent survey of 6,000 people in Germany, France, the UK and the US found 21% had cut back. Such a shift in attitudes makes it all the more disturbing that members of the current government, including the health secretary, Matt Hancock, have yet to catch up. Asked twice on the radio this week whether people should reduce the number of flights they take, the minister said they should not.
The Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has probably done more than anyone else to promote the idea that flying should, wherever possible, be avoided. In August she went to New York on a zero-emissions sailing boat. In Sweden last year, air passenger numbers fell by 5% as rail numbers went up. The German Green party (which topped 20% and doubled its seats in last year’s European elections) aims to make domestic flights obsolete.
With new research showing 2019 was the second-hottest year on record on the planet’s surface, and the hottest-ever for the oceans, it is increasingly difficult to understand why any rational person would not be behind all and any measures designed to reduce carbon emissions. Evidence of the growing danger extends from the devastation caused by the Australian bushfires to this week’s report that up to 1 million seabirds were killed in less than a year by a “hot blob” in the Pacific Ocean.
This context made it particularly troubling to hear a senior UK government minister, and one generally considered to be on the moderate wing of his party, blithely deny that reducing flights is a good idea. Just as bad was the fact that his remarks came only hours after the announcement of a tax holiday and review of air passenger duty as part of a rescue deal to save the regional airline Flybe. Mr Hancock’s comment that “we should use technology to reduce carbon emissions” could be dismissed as naive if it was not so irresponsible.
Electric flight is in its infancy and, while there have been significant gains in fuel efficiency, zero-carbon flight remains a remote prospect. Projections of future emissions consistently expect aviation to be responsible for an increasing share of the total, although the industry complains that it is unfairly singled out given that the current figure is 2.5%.
The UK, however, is a special case. Aviation is responsible for 7% of emissions now and is expected to overtake all other sources by 2050. Britons are the most frequent flyers to international destinations in the world, although a small minority are responsible for the vast majority of flights; by contrast, 48% reported in a recent government survey that they had not flown at all in the previous year. The US, meanwhile, has by far the heaviest air traffic (including domestic flights) overall, with the International Air Transport Association predicting that China will overtake it in about five years’ time – and global air traffic expected to double to around 8.2bn flights annually by 2037.
No one wants remote locations such as some of those served by Flybe to be cut off, which is why the handful of routes deemed socially necessary are exempt from European state aid rules. But ministers should promote alternatives wherever possible. Hinting at a reduction in flight taxes when rail fares are rising by 2.7% sends the wrong message.
Individuals altering their habits, even in large numbers, will not avert disaster. In a sense the opposite is true: collective action by whole countries, led by governments, to push entire economies into a clean era is the answer. But “flight shame”, along with movements to restrict other carbon-intensive forms of consumption, is still a force for good. The point is not to show that you are better than other people, or to displace anxiety from the public realm into the private one. It is to show the world’s leaders, in business and politics, that we get it: life must change.
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