Environment: Is air travel a flying shame?

By Doug Moss and Roddy Scheer
Does guilt raise awareness?
Does guilt raise awareness?
Dear EarthTalk: What is so-called Flying Shame and what’s the climate connection?

     -- Bridget J., New York  
     Flying shame is a term that has sprung up recently to describe making others feel guilty if they use airplane travel, given the massive carbon footprint. Some call it The Greta Effect in a nod to Swedish teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who swore off air travel given its disproportionate drag on her efforts to slash her own carbon footprint.
     Thunberg isn’t alone. The original concept of flying shame (Flygskam) started in Sweden, where “flying is becoming the new tobacco” in the words of Andy Rowell of the nonprofit Oil Change International. A recent survey by the World Wildlife Fund found that 23 percent of Swedes have abstained from air travel in the past year to reduce their carbon footprints—a jump of 6 percentage points from a year ago. And 18 percent of respondents opted to travel by train instead of airplane during the course of the year.
     The Swedes aren’t the only ones cutting back on flying. Other Europeans are following suit, which makes sense given the excellent rail and ferry systems transecting Europe as practical alternatives to flying. The concept has been slower to catch on in the U.S. given greater distances and limited passenger rail options.
    Regardless, air travel is growing by leaps and bounds worldwide. “The problem is that, as the science demands we radically reduce carbon emissions, the number of passenger aircraft is set to double by 2035,” worries Oil Change International's Rowell. Every day the aviation industry consumes 5 million barrels of oil. In 2017 alone, airplanes emitted 859 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, burning jet fuel contributes roughly 2.5 percent of total carbon emissions worldwide. Analysts think this proportion could rise to 22 percent by 2050 as other sectors clean up their acts quicker.
    There are no truly green, practical alternatives to kerosene-based jet fuel on the horizon. “Aircraft are becoming more fuel-efficient, but not quickly enough to offset the huge demand in growth,” reports The Conversation. “Electric planes remain decades away, weighed down by batteries that can’t deliver nearly as much power per kilo as jet fuel.”
    So what’s to be done? Swear off flying, that’s what. Flight Free USA is a grassroots campaign trying to get at least 100,000 Americans to commit to not flying at all during the calendar year 2020 in order to send a “clear signal to industry and politicians—and also to each other—that there are many who are willing to change their lifestyles to protect the climate.”
    Yet another slice of the apple is called A Free Ride, an idea which assigns an escalating flight tax depending on how many flights you take per year. One flight per year would be free of tax, while 14 flights a year would cost a pretty penny in taxes, with the proceeds going to offsetting the jet fuel with green energy projects elsewhere.


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