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Flygskam: the conscious traveller

In 2019, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg drew praise for putting her words into action: Rather than fly to New York to address a UN summit, she sailed across the North Atlantic in a carbon-neutral yacht. She is just one of a growing number of environmentally-conscious travellers who seek to reduce their personal carbon footprints by avoiding unnecessary flights. But does this really make a difference?

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Growth in air travel has grown 61% since 2010 and according to The Guardian, flying is one of the chief contributors to carbon emissions. Enter flygskam or ‘flight shaming’, a term coined by Staffan Lindberg, a Swedish singer who vowed in 2017 to stop flying because of his guilt over airplane pollution. Other Swedish celebrities soon grounded themselves, too.

Lindberg’s action has gained international attention because his purpose is partly to draw attention to those who fly excessively, heedless of the impact – hence the ‘Shaming’.

“We have become more conscious about our impact and footprint, and this element influences the many different consumption decisions we take every day,” says Norbert Rücker, Managing Director at Julius Baer and Head of Next Generation Research.

With two or more long-haul flights, air travel becomes the single most important contributor to the personal climate footprint.

Norbert Rücker

While air travel makes up about 2.5% of global carbon emissions, according to the New York Times, it can be a third or more of one’s personal climate footprint. “With two or more long-haul flights, air travel becomes the single most important contributor to the personal climate footprint. We tend to forget that flying is still a privilege from a global perspective,” says Mr Rücker.

Despite the hype, it is perhaps too soon to ascertain whether ‘flight shaming’ has had any impact. According to latest data of the International Air Transport Association, growth in demand for air travel has been slowing, but this mainly mirrors the economic slowdown.

Climate change and our individual impact is a complex topic, and it is very human to seek simple painless solutions.

Norbert Rücker

Despite the hype, it is perhaps too soon to ascertain whether ‘flight shaming’ has had any impact. According to latest data of the International Air Transport Association, growth in demand for air travel has been slowing, but this mainly mirrors the economic slowdown.

Several airport operators are publicly listed and their passenger reports do not suggest a decline in absolute numbers. Quite the opposite. Mr Rücker believes this should not come as a surprise. “Climate change and our individual impact is a complex topic, and it is very human to seek simple painless solutions. We could call this the ‘plastic straw syndrome’. Reducing plastic use in one’s everyday life is honourable, but it is only a gesture. The decisions we make on housing, food and travel have much greater consequences.”

Will travellers change their flight patterns?
The extent to which people are willing to forgo air travel is questionable, as holidays and keeping in touch with friends and family may depend on it. Could taxation be an effective deterrent?

“Unlike cars and road fuels, where taxes are common to cover infrastructure or pollution costs, air travel and kerosene fuel are largely exempt from such taxes today, and enjoy an advantage,” says Mr Rücker.

But this is changing as ever more countries consider, introduce or raise surcharges on ticket prices. Taxes are most likely to work best on short-haul leisure routes, where travellers are price-sensitive. Direct fuel taxes are punitive because fuel is an airline’s biggest cost, and so a clear incentive to buy more efficient jets.

Technology has long promised to make business-class travel less necessary but video conferencing, for example, has never really taken off as a travel substitute. This segment of the market remains the bedrock of the established, full service airlines.

Prices for first-class travel are also fairly inelastic as this segment will fly regardless of taxes or headline charges. Passengers at the front of the plane contribute disproportionately to carbon emissions, given the extra space they enjoy.

Electrification of road transport to have greater impact
In the future, airplanes powered by fuel cells or batteries are likely to become viable for short-haul flights. Changes in traffic control that take advantage of technology to reduce distances between planes in flight could contribute to a reduction in emissions, too.  Busy airports have to ‘stack’ planes before landing, which is costly.

For long haul flights, carbon neutral fuels seem the only option to curb emissions for the time being. “We expect oil demand to peak and decline after 2035,” Mr Rücker adds. “This change will most likely come from the electrification of road transport, not from changes in air travel habits or changes in airplane technology.”