Air travel is deemed important for global trade and connectivity, but is the most difficult mode of transport to decarbonise. As a result, some members of the public have decided to stop flying.

This Insight explains the Swedish origins of the term ‘flight shame,’ how it has led to ‘flight free’ campaigns, and the aviation industry’s response.

Why is it so difficult to fly carbon-free?

Aviation currently accounts for 7% of UK carbon emissions. With predictions of continued growth and slow decarbonisation, it is likely to be the largest contributor to UK emissions in 2050, according to the independent Committee on Climate Change.

For flights to be truly carbon-free, they would need to be via zero emission, electric planes. However, commercial fully-electric flights for short and long haul routes are years to decades away. Low-carbon aviation fuels (such as bio or synthetic) are also in the early stages of development and are more expensive than conventional jet fuel.

The additional warming effects of particles and non-CO2 gases emitted high in the atmosphere (from both conventional and many low-carbon fuels) may also double the historical warming impact caused by aircraft CO2 emissions. This is not always accounted for in climate impact assessments.

International strategies to manage emissions from flying include carbon offsetting and market-based measures (such as CORSIA – a UN agreement, and EU-ETS, an EU scheme). However, there is ongoing criticism of CORSIA from NGOs (including the Aviation Environment Federation and Transport and Environment) and the Committee on Climate Change.

The UK Government’s policy is to reach ‘net zero’ by 2050, although only domestic flights are currently included in the legislation. UK aviation recently pledged to align all international flights departing from the UK with this goal.

Björn in Sweden

In 2017 several Swedes, including musician Staffan Lindberg, biathlete Björn Ferry and climate activist Greta Thunberg, announced that they would give up flying. With this, the concept of ‘flight shame’ or ‘Flygskam’ was born.

In Sweden, flight shame has been credited with boosting train travel, leading to the concept of ‘tågsemester’ (literally ‘train holiday’). Proponents say it is motivated both by reducing an individual’s carbon footprint and appreciating the benefits of slow travel, such as meeting new people on the journey.

Flight shame may be having a quantifiable effect on consumer transport choices in Sweden. Airport operator Swedavia reported a 4% drop in passenger numbers in 2019 compared to 2018 (a 9% drop for domestic flights). Swedavia spokesperson Robert Pletzin said this could be due to both economic factors and the climate debate. However, Swedavia CEO Jonas Abrahamsson, said that flight shame was not the solution for reducing emissions from aviation. In 2017, passenger numbers travelling with Swedish train operator SJ increased by 5% compared to 2018. SJ think this is due to public interest in climate-smart travel.

Is flight shame spreading beyond Sweden?

A survey by the European Investment Bank reported that:

  • 75% of Europeans said they would fly less in 2020 for environmental purposes.
  • 36% of Europeans said they already fly less for this reason.
  • For China and the USA, 94% and 69% said they intended to fly less in 2020, respectively.

Across the EU, air passenger numbers increased by 6% between 2017 and 2018 (full data for 2019 is not yet available). In Germany air passenger numbers declined in autumn 2019 compared to autumn 2018. Analysis by Deutsche Bank suggests that this was due to economic reasons and not ‘flight shame’.

In the UK, 297 million air passengers passed through UK airports in 2019, up from 292 million in 2018, and 284 million in 2017. The Financial Times reported the number of domestic flights decreased by 20% over the last decade. However, it attributed this to taxes, improved train services and market economics.

The campaign encouraging people to stop flying in the UK is represented by Flight Free 2020. Australia, Canada, the USA and France have started similar campaigns.

Is the aviation industry feeling the pressure?

At a summit for airline CEOs in June 2019, Head of the International Air Transport Association, Alexandre de Juniac, said of flight shame: “unchallenged, this sentiment will grow and spread.” Rolls Royce CEO Warren East also said public concern about aviation emissions was threatening their business.

A 2019 report by investment bank UBS suggested that concerns about climate change, “could cause people to shun air travel in future” and that this could accelerate the sector towards lower-emission Hybrid Electric Aviation by 2028.

Dutch airline KLM has encouraged passengers to “explore other travel options” such as rail for short journeys, as part of its ‘fly responsibly’ campaign.

The actions of the few?

Only 15% of people take 70% of all flights from the UK and 50% of UK residents don’t fly each year. Whether the campaigns are convincing the most frequent flyers is not yet clear. Proponents argue that the knock-on effect of seeing people giving up flying will inspire others to do the same. Some have questioned whether more ‘ethical travel’ alternatives are a realistic possibility for families, especially when they may fly only once a year.

Further reading:

Climate change and aviation, POST.

Net zero in the UK, House of Commons Library.

Decarbonising Aviation. Plane easy? Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit.

About the author: Emily Mason is a POST Fellow.