‘Flygskam’: The New Swedish Word To Describe The Guilt of Air Travel

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The word ‘flygskam’ is a recent Swedish neologism. It’s made up of two words: ‘flyg’ which means ‘flight’ and ‘skam’ which means ‘shame’. It encapsulates the feeling of guilt, or shame, which can come from knowing the environmental impact of travelling by plane. And flygskam is now becoming a global movement, with people pledging to fly less and opting to travel by train instead of plane, using #flyingless or #stayinggrounded to highlight their commitment to plane-free travel.

It’s somewhat ironic that this movement originated in Sweden, a country whose people fly seven times more than the average global citizen. Indeed, whilst Sweden’s total CO2 emissions have reduced by 24% since 1990, air traffic has grown 61% in the same time.

But it seems that now people are starting to catch on to the environmental impact of flying. The origin of the flying less movement is often attributed to Swedish biathlete Björn Ferry. He estimated that during his sporting career he was travelling 180 days of the year, totalling around 25,000 miles per year by plane and another 25,000 by car or minibus — and around 16 tons of CO2 emissions per year. He’s an extreme case, but after realising his impact he publicly committed to ditching air travel completely.

Of course, recently we’ve also seen 16 year old climate activist Greta Thunberg choosing to travel to events and conferences by train. And most recently taking two weeks to travel from England to the UN Climate Action summit in New York, by the Malizia II, a solar-powered yacht.

Is air travel really that bad?

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Over the last two decades planes have become much more energy efficient. Fuel consumption has gone from 6.3 litres per person per 100 kilometres to around 3.7 litres per person per 100 kilometres.

That’s a significant difference.

Saying that, though, flying is still by far the most damaging form of travel. A return flight from London to New York alone produces nearly two tons of CO2 equivalent emissions. In 2014 the transportation working group for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published a report which estimated that the direct greenhouse gas emissions from aviation made up 10.62% of total global transportation emissions in 2010.

Plus, research suggests that the emissions from air travel may be even more damaging, with the height increasing their impact. The contrails can form clouds that trap thermal radiation, and at that height, other emissions, such as nitrogen oxides, also contribute to warming. Because of this, some have estimated the total warming caused by planes to be at least double the amount caused by the emissions alone.

So, yes, air travel really is that bad.

Is flygskam making a difference?

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In 2017 bookings for air travel in Sweden fell by 3%. In the same year, 50% more interrailling tickets were purchased than in 2016. It can often feel that as individuals our actions have little consequence. But this is proof of what can happen when individual action becomes group action.

However, it can be easy to view this in isolation. Although the flying less movement is gathering momentum, we are still seeing expansions in the aviation industry. In the UK, for instance, plans for a third runway at Heathrow Airport are still underway. The airport is already the single biggest source of CO2 emissions in the entirety of the UK, and estimations suggest that the new runway would cause emissions from aviation in the UK to rise by a staggering 4.9 million tonnes by 2030.

It’s also important to note that flying is still an incredibly privileged mode of transport. The vast majority of people worldwide do not travel regularly, if ever. A 2012 Gallup poll of people living in America found that in the last 12 months 48% of people had taken no flights, 27% had taken one or two flights, and 25% of people had taken three or more flights. Writer and journalist George Monbiot pointed this out in his 2006 book Heat: How We Can Stop the Planet Burning, in which he argued that to ‘address climate change’ most aeroplanes would need to be grounded. He went on to say that this was not a ‘popular message’ but that we needed to remember that:

“But I urge you to remember that these privations affect only a tiny proportion of the world’s people. The reason they seem so harsh is that this tiny proportion almost certainly includes you.” — George Monbiot

For most people, flying simply isn’t an option. It’s worth remembering that next time you complain that travelling by train would take a little longer, or cost a little more.

So can environmental shame be a good thing?

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As I noted previously, the word ‘flygskam’ translates literally as ‘flight shame’. It’s a movement built out of individuals feeling guilt for their own personal contributions to the climate crisis.

I’ve written before about why we need to stop shaming one another when it comes to sustainability. But, in this case, is shame and guilt a positive emotion for promoting action against the climate crisis?

Personally, I don’t think guilt or shame is ever a positive emotion. Even if it’s initially motivating, it can quickly become a debilitating emotion, leaving us focused on despair rather than continuing to push for environmental change. It’s clear, though, that flygskam is starting to make a difference. And although choosing not to fly is an individual decision, it’s also becoming a group movement. It’s hard to be too critical of that.

However, I do think that we need to keep the focus on the aviation industry as a whole, rather than on shaming individual passengers. In the UK, for instance, the aviation industry is effectively subsidised by the government. It does not pay fuel duty or VAT on the fuel for its planes, with estimates suggesting that this represents a saving of around £10 billion per year. No wonder there is such an abundance of budget flights — making trains seem an incredibly expensive option.

Of course, reducing customer demand is one way of boycotting the aviation industry. If we pledge to fly less, and choose to give our money to train companies instead, then there will be less demand for flights and so the number of flights will have to be reduced. The flygskam movement is successfully doing this — and so it’s hard to be too critical about it. But let’s keep the focus on reducing plane travel as a whole, rather than feeling guilt on a personal level.



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