Public takes flying’s impact into its own hands

Tackling environmental problems is generally thought to involve politicians introducing regulations and imposing measures that encourage or nudge behaviour in desired directions. But, following decades of government inaction on aviation emissions, the public is taking the matter into its own hands.

 

There is growing awareness that to fly means to add to greenhouse gases, and aviation continues to be one of Europe’s problem areas. CO2 emissions from planes grew by 4.9% within Europe last year, while emissions from all other industries in the EU emissions trading system fell by 3.9%.

Citizens have responded with an initiative that has, so far, reduced air travel in Sweden by 4.5% (around 400,000 passengers) in the first quarter of this year. That is despite a growing economy, which normally means growing passenger numbers. It goes under the name ‘flygskam’, which is Swedish for ‘shame of flying’, and is meant to make taking a plane as socially unacceptable as smoking around children or not wearing a seat belt have become.

With climate breakdown having become the biggest issue among Sweden’s young people and Greta Thunberg’s ‘school strike’ movement having caught public interest last summer, Sweden’s airports and airlines are already seeing falling numbers. According to a survey by WWF, 23% of Swedes say they have not travelled by air in the past year for climate reasons (an increase from 17% over the previous year).

At the same time, train travel is rising, with that same WWF study showing an 18% rise in train travel for climate-motivated reasons, and Sweden’s national train operator SJ reporting a record 32 million passengers for 2018. There is also a corresponding growth in buzzwords for this, such as ‘tagskryt’ (train bragging) and even ‘smygflyg’ (flying in secret).

Flygskam is thought to be one of the first cases of a word popularised on the internet shaming people into changes of behaviour. It has spread to the UK, France and elsewhere and is expected to continue to grow until governments take action to curb the climate impact of flying. T&E said they must start by ending aviation’s decades-long kerosene tax holiday. Unlike road transport, airlines in Europe have never paid a single cent of excise duty on the fuel they take on at EU airports.