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Air Travel Experiences “Greta Effect” as Flight Shame Grows

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Greta Thunberg's "school strike for climate" protest has ignited a global movement.

Photo by Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock

Greta Thunberg's "school strike for climate" protest has ignited a global movement.

A new study revealed that a quarter of U.S. travelers have reduced their air travel by one or more flights in the past year due to climate concerns.

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What started as young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg’s lone protest demanding climate change action has grown into an international phenomenon that could have real consequences for the air industry as a growing number of people eschew air travel due to climate concerns.

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A recent survey of 6,000 respondents conducted by Swiss bank UBS indicated that 24 percent of U.S. travelers have reduced their air travel by at least one or more flights in the past year due to environmental concerns. The numbers were similar among European respondents, with 23 percent of travelers from France, 23 percent of German travelers, and 16 percent of U.K. travelers stating that they have reduced their air travel by one or more flights as well.

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Consequently, UBS predicts that consumers’ growing climate awareness could slow the trajectory of air passenger growth in the United States and Europe in the coming years.

The survey confirms that the movement known as flygskam (pronounced “fleeg–skaam”) or “flight shame” is gaining momentum. The movement has been fueled by a growing wave of eco-conscious travelers who are forgoing flying for less environmentally harmful forms of transportation such as train travel.

 

Growing climate change awareness is beginning to impact people's decision to fly.

Initially, the flygskam movement appeared to be taking a much stronger hold in Europe, where it is arguably much easier to swap in trains for planes than in the United States. But according to the new UBS research that was published last week, there has been a recent increase in the share of U.S. travelers who have reduced their air travel over the past year—from 19 percent in a May 2019 survey to 24 percent in the most recent survey, which was conducted between July and August 2019.

Their mounting concern is not unfounded. The aviation industry accounts for about 2 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And if global aviation were a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters, according to a European Union report.

Thankfully, airlines have actually been making some serious strides when it comes to scaling back on emissions, making greater contributions to carbon offsets, and minimizing their environmental impact.

Just last week, Air France announced that it will offset 100 percent of the carbon emissions on all of its domestic flights by January 1, 2020, effectively making its more than 450 daily domestic flights carbon neutral thanks to investments in carbon-offset programs.

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We will likely continue to see carbon offset initiatives being rolled out by airlines as they work to meet the regulations set forth by the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (known as CORSIA), which was established by the International Civil Aviation Organization in 2016. CORSIA laid out the goal that all growth in international flight capacity after 2020 be carbon neutral. In order to comply with that agreement, airlines will, among other things, need to purchase emission offsets to compensate for any increase in their own emissions from 2020 on.

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The International Air Transport Association has outlined some additional climate ambitions for the airline industry as well. The global trade organization has asked for an average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5 percent per year from 2009 to 2020 and a net reduction in aviation CO2 emissions of 50 percent by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.

What remains to be seen is whether those efforts will be enough to convince a traveling public that is growing increasingly worried about their carbon footprint not to scale back on flying.

>> Next: How “Flygskam,” or “Flight Shame,”  Could Change the Way We All Travel

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