Eco-conscious travelers regularly come face-to-face with what for some has become an insurmountable dilemma: how to justify the climate change–contributing emissions of air travel. That question has led to a growing movement that kicked off in Sweden known as flygskam (pronounced “fleeg–skaam”) or “flight shame,” whereby travelers are documenting the ways in which they are forgoing air travel for less environmentally harmful forms of travel such as rail.
“I’m worried that better intentions aren’t enough anymore. We’re being told it’s a matter of years to reverse climate change and without pressure and fear of losing profit, airlines won’t push through changes fast enough,” British travel writer Rachel Mills commented on a recent Instagram post where she announced she would be attempting to go for a full year without getting on a plane due to her climate concerns.
Those concerns were heightened by the fact that Mills, who lives in London, recently developed asthma. “I hadn’t noticed the poor air quality [in London] because you can’t usually see it,” Mills told AFAR. “It took a trip to India to realize that air quality isn’t something we need to worry about in the future. It’s a very real problem—now.”
Mills said that in Delhi and in the mountains of India, she had to wear a face mask. “And so, if you want to talk about ‘shame,’ there’s a good place to start—only Westerners or the very rich can afford proper masks with a filter,” she added.
That type of shame has resulted in travelers documenting their personal journeys and observations on social media, including through several hashtags such as #flygskam, #StayOnTheGround, and #tagskryt (which translates into “train bragging” in Swedish).
The movement took off last year after the young Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg announced her decision to eschew air travel due to her concerns about the environment. Indeed, the aviation industry accounts for about 2 percent of global carbon emissions, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. And if global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters, according to a European Union report.
The issue was thrust back into the international spotlight last month when a survey published by Swedish Railways found that 37 percent of respondents chose to travel by rail instead of air, compared with 26 percent last fall, and 20 percent in early 2018, indicating that Swedish travelers were in fact hitting the rails in growing numbers, according to a report from the Guardian.
The U.S. interpretation of flygskam
While the movement has predominantly gained momentum in Europe thus far, there are signs of its migration stateside.
“International travel contributes heavily to climate change, and carbon caused by flying is a major part of that,” European tour and travel tips provider Rick Steves told AFAR.
Steves, whose travel company is based in Edmonds, Washington, recently announced that to mitigate the environmental impact of Rick Steves’ Europe tours, the company will be investing $1 million each year in a climate smart portfolio of nonprofit organizations to ensure that the flights its touring customers take end up being carbon neutral. “It’s essentially a self-imposed carbon tax,” said Steves.
But, he added, to simply stop traveling would be “the wrong solution.”
Steves joins a small but growing group of outfitters that are investing in clean energy projects to fully offset their climate impact. The latest is Lindblad Expeditions, which earlier this month committed to becoming fully carbon neutral by the end of 2019.
The U.S. version of the movement appears to be more focused on carbon offsetting rather than on swapping planes for trains. That is not least because the U.S. rail system is notoriously behind in sophistication when compared to many of its snazzier international counterparts, including the high-speed rail networks of Europe.
But national rail operator Amtrak is working to change that: It released images last week of the progress being made on its next-generation high-speed Acela trains destined for the Northeast Corridor between Boston and Washington, D.C. The new Acela Express Fleet—which will launch in 2021—will be at least 20 percent more efficient than existing trains, according to Amtrak.
In an environment where travelers are increasingly aware of and concerned about their carbon footprint, Amtrak is eager to showcase how it compares from an emissions standpoint to air travel.
Citing transportation energy data provided by the U.S. Department of Energy, Amtrak reports that one of its electric trains emits 0.074 kilograms of greenhouse gases (CO2) per passenger mile, compared with 0.227 kilograms of greenhouse gases per passenger mile for short-haul flights (flights less than 300 miles), and 0.137 kilograms of greenhouse gases per passenger mile for longer haul flights (flights between 300 and 2,300 miles).
Emissions numbers aside, United Airlines spokesperson Charles Hobart said that the flygskam movement has yet to have any real impact on this side of the Atlantic.
“In terms of the flight shaming movement and what we’re seeing in Europe, of course that’s of concern to us but it’s primarily affecting European carriers,” said Hobart. “We don’t see that sort of widespread engagement here in the United States.”
Regardless, United wants to be ahead of passengers’ climate concerns, according to Hobart. “We are working to solidify our motto of becoming the world’s most environmentally conscious airline,” he said.
Last fall, United announced its goal to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050, when compared to its 2005 emissions levels. And last month, the carrier renewed its contract with Boston-based World Energy, agreeing to purchase up to 10 million gallons of aviation biofuel over the next two years.
“The most effective way that we can reduce our impact on the environment is through the use of sustainable aviation biofuels,” said Hobart, adding that “99 percent of our emissions come from the fuels that we use.”
Hobart said that if other airlines follow suit, that will help to create a growing demand—and better pricing—for emissions reducing biofuels.
Flight shame movement or no, said Hobart, “We have to address this concern and address the role that we play in it.”