Shame on you
My first foreign holiday was to Salou on the Costa Dorada in Spain. I was 9 years old, least that’s my best guess when I look at the black and white photograph descending the steps of our plane onto the hot tarmac of Barcelona airport. It felt like a hair dryer had been switched on and I wondered why I was wearing collar, tie and mustard coloured zip-up jacket? The cloudy weather at Speke Airport (John Lennon) had been more comfortable and dressing up for flying was expected in the late 1960s?
It was 11 years before I flew again. A university field trip to Southern Spain. In the intervening teenage years, my parents turned their back on package holidays investing in a caravan and my education instead.
Family holidays were adventures to Wales, praying for good weather as we watched the cloud cover ebb and mostly flow over breakfast. Scotland was later, where guaranteed grey backdrops were temporarily forgotten as we soaked up the wilder country the Highlands offered.
The budget flight revolution which has made Europe and long haul destinations so much more accessible to many, started in Texas with Southwest Airlines in 1971. Monopoly pricing at Heathrow was first challenged by Freddie Laker with Skytrain in the 1970s. But it was the 1990s which saw Easyjet and Ryanair turn a somewhat neglected Stansted into a significant hub for European flying, being careful not to compete with each other over the same routes.
Package holidays continued to grow in popularity with comparable UK hotel holidays becoming more expensive without the guarantee of good weather. A shift in behaviour may have seen the demise of the traditional tour operators like Thomas Cook but budget airlines continue to thrive with online bookings of holidays as well as flights.
Recently disappointed half-term holiday makers suggest that demand is returning quickly after pandemic restrictions have now been finally lifted.
Shaming is such a damning word. The definition is, make (someone) feel ashamed, which conjures up a dystopian world where frequent flyers with beyond platinum cards, previously considered society success stories are now being publicly ridiculed for their irresponsible behaviour.
Flygskam, where flight shaming originates is a Swedish word and movement brought to our attention by Greta Thunberg, the teenage Swede, who has captured the imagination of many young protesters (and older ones) trying to reverse the current climate crisis. Her refusal to fly had been catching on in Sweden, with a WWF survey reporting that a quarter of Swedes in 2019 had opted out of air travel in the previous 12 months. The global pandemic has since skewed results everywhere, but it seems likely that the Swedish people will continue to curb their appetite for flying.
The Swedish government has introduced a greenhouse gas reduction mandate for aviation fuel sold in Sweden, part of its ambitious plan to be fossil-free by 2045. A small reduction in 2021 will increase to 27% by 2030. The UK government is also in discussion, but mandating won’t start until 2025 at the earliest and will only reach 10% by 2030.
The problem is air travel currently lacks a near future electrical or hydrogen fuelled alternative, unlike trains, buses and cars. Reductions to CO2 emissions relies on supply-side intervention with more fuel efficient jet engines using biofuels and rationalising routes. Demand-side is limited to carbon offsetting and choosing to fly less.
How selfish is flying?
The air industry accounts for 2.5% of global carbon emissions and regularly complains about being singled out as the unreasonable polluter. But unlike Sweden, the UK is a special case - we love to fly, more than any other nation. In 2018 we flew 126.2m times; more than the US and China.
Aviation accounts for 7% of UK CO2 emissions now, having doubled in the last 25 years and likely to be the number one source by 2050. Passenger rates are forecast to double every 15-20 years, although a 2018, pre-pandemic government survey, revealed half of the UK population hadn’t flown at all in the previous 12 months.
I was surprised to receive an email from Easy Jet this week reminding me about world environment day, a United Nations initiative. Perhaps it was to distract me from the recent airport queues and cancelled flights?
They joined the race to zero last year and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. I was also reminded that they are the only airline which includes carbon offsetting in the price of a ticket, which could be considered counter intuitive if the aim is to reduce the number of flights we take. Feel good, fly more?
KLM’s, Fly Responsibly campaign seems to be on safer ground. Do you know that flying from Amsterdam to Brussels takes longer than going by train? seems an honest attempt to make passengers consider their options. They also encourage passengers to voluntarily purchase carbon offsets on top of the ticket price.
This seems more in the spirit of the flight shame movement, making you more accountable for your carbon footprint.
Good old fashioned rationing
Ms Lumley (Absolutely Fabulous actor) got into a bit of bother last year when she suggested a system of rationing with every citizen having limited points to spend on climate damaging activities like flying.
In 1939-40, the government rejected taxation to temper consumption because the results would be slow and inequitable. Instead, they chose rationing, which was quick to implement and a much fairer system.
As I’ve said previously, the only way to net zero CO2 emissions by 2050, the UK government’s pledge, will be new laws, tax or a combination of the two. Carbon rationing, especially non-tradeable tokens, should not be dismissed as old fashioned or unworkable.
What happens next?
Is Flygskam a glimpse of where society’s attitudes are likely to go? Between 2030 and 2050, climate change is expected to cause approximately 250,000 additional deaths per year, from malnutrition, malaria, diarrhoea and heat stress. Some forecasts are far worse.
How long will we continue to feel good about flying? Will there come a point when flying to Spain, Greece, Turkey (other destinations apply) will be frowned upon?Government interference could speed up the process. It hasn’t taken long, for instance, for diesel cars to fall in popularity. There were more battery electric vehicles registered in March 2022 than during the whole of 2019, with their monthly market share growing to 16.1%. The price of fossil fuel and more affordable electric models is starting to impact choice.
Perhaps we will soon become familiar with another Swedish word - tagskryt which means train-bragging?