World / Science & Health

'Flight shaming' is in the air as U.N. summit faces climate crisis

Thomson Reuters Foundation

As world leaders met in New York, one question kept coming up at climate change events: How did you get here?

Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg made headlines for deciding to sail rather than fly to New York for the climate summit that kicked off the United Nations’ key annual meeting.

But world leaders and delegates arrived by plane in their thousands, prompting a gathering of tourism executives in New York to ponder how to address the fact that flying adds to the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for global warming.

“Flight shaming” — a term that came from the Swedish-born concept of flygskam — has “firmly entered the consciousness of Europeans,” said the event’s program, a climate-themed gathering organized by the World Travel and Tourism Council.

“If there’s an elephant in the room … of course it’s aviation,” Norwegian Minister for Climate and Environment Ola Elvestuen told the event.

Commercial flying currently accounts for about 2 percent of global carbon emissions and about 12 percent of transport emissions, according to data cited by the Air Transport Action Group.

By 2020, emissions from global international aviation are projected to be about 70 percent higher than in 2005 due to rising travel demand. Passenger numbers are forecast to double to 8.2 billion between 2017 and 2037, according to the International Air Transport Association.

International airlines are counting on a global carbon offsetting plan discussed in Montreal this past week to cap emissions of carbon dioxide from air travel at 2020 levels.

Some environmentalists say it is not necessary to give up air travel — just to convince travelers to change their habits.

“What we need to do is get into a collective cultural mindset where we understand that air travel is a scarce resource,” said Leo Murray of the British climate action charity 10:10. “It’s frequent flying that needs to change.”

With the U.N. gathering underway, the travel site fromAtoB published research about international flights taken by 15 of the heads of the world’s 20 largest economies in 2018, though some countries refused to give travel information.

It found Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who came to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, was responsible for the most travel among the heads of the Group of 20 nations. He took 38 flights in his Boeing 747-400 in 2018, traveling 128,000 miles (207,000 km) and emitting nearly 14,500 tons of carbon dioxide, researchers calculated.

U.S. President Donald Trump came second, with 81,400 miles (131,000 km) flown in 2018 and with 16 international visits.

Among European leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the most flights, with 83, but most were within Europe.

According to the European Commission, a return flight between London and New York generates roughly the same level of emissions as heating a European home for a whole year.

The website did not calculate emissions from the leaders of the U.N.’s 193 member states, but the issue of flying to climate events has started to hit the spotlight.

Earlier this year, British actor Emma Thompson was criticized for taking a first-class flight from the United States to Britain to take part in climate protests.

Celebrities who preach environmentalism while also taking trips in private jets, such as Britain’s Prince Harry and U.S. actor Leonardo DiCaprio, have also been accused of hypocrisy.

Sweden has seen the clearest sign of a “Greta effect,” with plane passengers tailing off as train journeys rise. The country’s airport operator reported passenger numbers have dipped by 4 percent in 2019 — and by 8 percent for shorter domestic flights; the state-owned train operator has seen a reported rise of 8 percent in the first quarter of the year.

The number of rail travel passes rose by 40 percent across Scandinavian countries in 2018, said the program’s operator, Eurail. A recent survey of passengers found most said climate issues had influenced their decision to travel by train.

“Although we cannot link our growth only to the decision of people to fly less we do see an increasing trend in train travel, especially when it comes to family and senior travelers,” said Carlo Boselli, the general manager at Eurail.

He urged for more policies to support train travel, adding “changing people’s travel behaviors is not something that happens overnight.”

In New York, Laura Perez-Arce, a director at Mexican grassroots environmental nonprofit Sierra Gorda Ecological Group, said she was “frustrated” to have to take an international flight to UNGA “in order to be heard.”

“I feel flight shame, I wouldn’t want to be here,” she said, but showing up in person had opened funding prospects, and a multiday car trip was not viable.

Speaking at the WTTC event, Christoph Wolff, who is head of mobility industries and system initiatives at the World Economic Forum, said it is difficult to juggle the needs to attend major events like UNGA and cut carbon emissions.

Some airlines let customers estimate their emissions and contribute to carbon-offset programs to compensate for them.

“The world wants to fly and wants to go to faraway places,” he said, while acknowledging that greener fuels, such as synthetic hydrocarbons, could push up the cost of flying by up to 40 percent.