Why “flight shame” will soon take off in the UK - and this isn’t a bad thing

Polly Stevens discusses the Swedish phrase 'flight shame' and what it means for budding environmentalists.

Polly Stevens
4th February 2020
Feature Image Credit: Karen Arnold from publicdomainpictures.net (CC0 Public Domain)
You’d be forgiven for hearing the words “flight shame” and looking puzzled while on UK soil; in Sweden, however, “flygskam” has rapidly become a part of everyday vocabulary.

Coined in 2018, and attributed in part to the ever increasing influence of Time Magazine’s person of the year Greta Thunberg, the Swedish term aims to increase travellers’ accountability for the emissions produced while flying. And the impact of this awareness is undoubtable; Airport operator Swedavia point to the climate crisis as an explanation of their 3% reduction in domestic flight passenger numbers in 2018, and UBS predict that should such a movement take hold globally, the expected growth in passenger numbers could halve. 

But in the meantime, air travel remains a significant contributor to global warming. Flying from London to New York and back generates about 986kg of CO2 per passenger, more than the total annual emissions of the average person in 56 countries. The UK is particularly guilty of this; Britons are the most frequent international fliers, and aviation is responsible for 7% of the country’s emissions. “Flight shame”, therefore, could be a key ingredient in tackling the climate crisis, which, according to Greener UK, 70% of Britons consider an urgent necessity. So why aren’t we familiar with it yet? Well, perhaps one reason the movement has not quite taken hold in the UK is the very British love of a holiday, and, given our climate, who can blame us? But giving up flying doesn’t have to mean giving up on holidays -  it takes less than a day to travel by train from London to Barcelona, producing just one tenth of the emissions the equivalent flight would generate. I myself have made the change; previously travelling to Newcastle from Bristol by plane, I’ve found the train not only greener but more comfortable, scenic, and much less stressful than the endless security checks and cramped seating one can expect when flying. 

"The percentage of travellers choosing rail over air travel rose by 17% between 2018 and 2019"

In fact, the term “tagskryt”, translated as “train bragging” has become something of a buzzword in Sweden, where the domestic rail system is among the most environmentally friendly in the world. A recent survey published by Swedish Railways (SJ) found that the percentage of travellers choosing rail over air travel rose by 17% between 2018 and 2019, and fares are continuously falling as the two main rail companies, SJ and MTR Express, compete with one another. At £0.21 per mile, Sweden’s average price for a single bought on the day of travel is less than half that of the UK’s, at an average of £0.55 per mile. The UK’s figure tops the list of European prices, perhaps explaining the exceptionally low quantity of journeys currently taken by train in the UK; just 2%.

 Is it really fair then, to “shame” those who opt for flying rather than train travel in Britain? Currently, 60% of long-distance journeys in the country are cheaper by plane than train, making aviation a more affordable option for many. But perhaps this is where the true power in “flight shame” lies; rather than a manner of condemning those who have no other option, the campaign should aim to encourage the government to give us other options. Voluntary reductions are a key method of encouraging appropriate governmental action regarding the environmental impacts of transportation, whether this be introducing climate taxes to account for flight emissions, or improving the efficiency and prices associated with rail travel. And while it’s clear that the UK is currently a long way behind Sweden in its efforts to lower transport-related emissions, we are without a doubt gaining momentum; UK Flight Free 2020, a campaign involving the pledging of individuals to refrain from flying for the year, is one of several recent movements following in the footsteps of “flight shame”. 

"And should provide a clear message to the government: things must change."

Thus the aim of “flight shame” should not be to guilt-trip individuals; rather, it should promote increased thoughtfulness when making travel-related decisions, and should provide a clear message to the government: things must change. Perhaps electric flight will eventually take hold, and “flight shame” will cease to exist. But in the meantime, while such a concept remains in its infancy, promoting appropriate taxes and regulations to account for emissions is a fundamental step in slowing climate change. “Flight shame” is a clear example of how individual action may encourage collective change, and for that, I think we should be all for it.

Feature Image Credit: Karen Arnold from publicdomainpictures.net (CC0 Public Domain)

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