‘Flygskam’ or ‘flight shame’: difficult to pronounce, but a concept which is gaining ground. “Flygskam” is an environmental movement founded in Sweden which discourages people from travelling by airplane, favouring less polluting modes of transport. It is difficult to date precisely the beginning of this movement, but Greta Thunberg, the now world recognised icon of the fight against climate change popularised it; notably over the summer she travelled to New York by sailboat in order to attend the U.N. Climate Action Summit instead of flying.
There has been a significant decline in flight passengers at Swedish airports, with the first signs of a slowdown observed at the end of 2018. Swedavia, administrator of 10 Swedish airports, published their annual statistics in February 2019 – their report shows the first decline of passenger numbers witnessed in a decade – down 3.8%. Most impacted is the internal market with 8.7% less passengers, but international flights are not spared with a passenger drop of 2.6% since January. Conversely, the principal train operator of the country, Stätens Järnvägar, is experiencing more business. They have seen a passenger rise of nearly 7% on their services during the first quarter of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018, especially on national routes linking the country’s biggest cities such as Stockolm – Gothenburg. Furthermore, in March 2019, the World Wildlife Fund published a survey indicating that 1 out of 5 Swedish people have chosen to take a train instead of a plane in order to pollute less at least once – clearly, the feeling of Flygskam is increasing common in the nation.
The aviation industry is a major actor in global pollution. According to the European Commission, direct pollution from aviation account for 3% of the EU’s total greenhouse emissions. Although it may seem like a small percentage, when put in perspective with the other means of transport, aviation is by far the most polluting way of travelling – producing 285 grams of CO2 per passenger per kilometre, while travelling by train emits only 14 grams per passenger per kilometre. In other words, travelling by plane is 20 times more polluting. Furthermore, global international aviation emissions are expected to rise by approximately 70% by 2020, and the forecasts for 2050 are even more alarming: emissions could increase a further 300-700%.
So, could this ‘Flygskam’ trend transform the way we travel in the 21st century? Time will tell – but for now, it seems as if it’s catching on. The Dutch have invented the word “vliegschaamte”, the Finnish say “lentohapea” and the Germans “flugscham”, all referring to the shameful feeling of flying. However, not all countries are following suit. The UK, for example, continues plans to expand Heathrow airport with a third runway – even though the airport is already the single biggest source of CO2 in the country.
Consequences of ‘Flygskam’ have been mainly observed on short distance or internal travels – unsurprising, as for most people alternative transport is not a viable solution for longer journeys. Moreover, despite the increasing awareness, the Swedes remain frequent flyers, travelling by plane on average 5 times more than the rest of the world population. However, there is hope that long haul travel can become sustainable. New technologies (such as Elon Musk’s Hyperloop train) are emerging, which would allow fast ground transport at the same speeds as an airplane – but with considerably less pollution. But until these innovations become commonplace, the feeling of ‘Flygskam’ is likely only going to spread.
Header Image by Jordan Sanchez on Unsplash
Transport analysis: https://www.trafa.se/en/rail-traffic/railway-transport/
European Commission: https://ec.europa.eu/clima/policies/transport/aviation_en