In the Netherlands they say vliegschaamte; the Swedes say flygskam; and the Germans Flugscham. The words all mean “fly shame”, or the guilt that travellers experience when they fly off somewhere knowing they are contributing to climate change.
In contrast, the British have little or no flight shame. We take 70 million flights a year, our aviation industry is growing fast and our government wants more runways (pdf ) for even more flights, scuppering any chance of meeting global emissions targets.
So when scientists say that we must make “rapid, unprecedented change” to our lifestyles to avoid climate catastrophe, and pinpoint flying as the most destructive form of travel, the questions mount: Is there such a thing as a right to fly? Is self-sacrifice necessary? Can you fly with a conscience? Are “love miles” to see family or friends OK? Will individual action make any difference to a global problem?
With tourism now thought to generate $7.6tn worldwide, or 10.2% of global GDP, and more than 250m jobs (pdf), no government is going to rock aviation. Instead, there has to be a far greater understanding of climate change and tourism’s role in it.
People like me, cursed with loving travel but knowing that climate change is a death sentence for much of the world, have several choices. We can trust the aircraft manufacturers and governments to improve technology and legislate; we can pay extra to offset emissions by investing in windfarms or other renewable energy projects; or we can just fly less.
The first option is useless. Planes are becoming more efficient, and biofuels and batteries may eventually reduce emissions significantly, but that is decades away and may be too late. A voluntary UN deal cobbled together by governments, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (Corsia), will launch in 2021 but has already been dismissed as weak.
So that leaves it up to passengers, individually and collectively, to act.
Personal and corporate carbon offsetting schemes – which allow people to balance out their carbon footprints by investing in clean energy projects such as solar or windfarms – became popular 10 years ago but have been criticised as ways for the rich to carry on polluting. Companies offering them, however, say the idea is good and still growing and could go mainstream if it were made easier to include when buying tickets.
“We are seeing rapidly growing interest in compensating flight emissions,” says Kai Landwehr of Swiss NGO Myclimate, which works with Lufthansa and Swissair. “It’s still a small proportion of flights but we are finding people are happy to pay more, even up to £40 a flight.”
Others say they are applying the idea of the “flexitarian” diet – where people cut back on their meat consumption drastically but not completely – to flying.
“We were going away three or four times a year just because we always did,” says Sarah Jones, a marketing executive from Reading. “It was stupid. The climate thing was the last straw. We just thought, ‘this is crazy’, so now we go abroad a maximum of once a year and really look forward to it.”
I personally feel intense flygskam, even vliegschaamte. My days of having both long- and short-haul passports, and reporting on climate change and ecological disasters from all corners of the world have ceased. I am now a self-styled “vleig-itarian”, committed to just one pleasure flight a year. Offsetting emissions may not be perfect, but it’s a good habit and it clearly helps people develop in better ways. Meanwhile, there are plenty of long-haul holidays that really do benefit local communities. Tourism projects that benefit communities are now thriving in Costa Rica, Ethiopia, South Africa, Bhutan and all over India and south-east Asia.
A new trend is for people to pledge to give up flying for a fixed period of time. Two Swedish women, Maja Rosen and Lotta Hammar, have persuaded nearly 14,500 people to commit to going air-free in 2019, and a further 6,000 have said they are interested. Their initiative, Flygfritt (flight-free) 2019, hopes to get 100,000 pledges as a way of showing politicians what needs to be done.
“Many people are concerned, but feel powerless. An air-free year can be a good way to break the habit and focus on alternatives,” says Hammar.
Author and Nasa climate scientist Peter Kalmus sums up why he has quit flying: “With the world population approaching 8 billion, my reduction obviously can’t solve global warming. But by changing ourselves in more than merely incremental ways, I believe we contribute to opening social and political space for large-scale change. We tell a new story by changing how we live.”
Kevin Anderson, professor of energy and climate change at the Tyndall Centre in Manchester, says: “I don’t have a no-fly policy, but rather a fly-less one. I have been able to avoid flying for many years because what I do is not sufficiently important to justify the emissions.
“If we are going to fly, it should be for truly extraordinary and important reasons. Otherwise, we shouldn’t go, or we should take a slower form of travel and arrange for a longer visit; thinking through the pros and cons of flying engenders a very different attitude towards travel, time, emissions and moral responsibility.”