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  • Writer's pictureRuwan

The Global Movement of "Flight Shame"

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

In developing Capture, co-founder Josie Stoker attributes inspiration to her own realization that the flights she was taking for work were having a terrible impact on the environment.

She cites the website as being the catalyst for behaviour change, saying “I saw how one passenger ticket on a return flight could lead to the melting of over 4 square metres of arctic ice. When you can actually measure how much Arctic ice your flight ticket melts, there’s no brushing that away. I couldn’t get the image out of my head.”

This is the sad truth: Air travel is a huge contributor to climate change. For the distance, short flights produce a larger amount of greenhouse gas emissions per passenger compared to longer routes. It is disheartening to realize that in traveling to wonderous and gorgeous places, you are ultimately threatening the stability of those regions as well. 

Stoker isn’t the only one who has doubts about flying frequently and the impact it has on the environment. In 2007, during a trip to visit her sister in Norway’s Loften Islands, Maja Rosén had an unsettling realization: These islands were one of the fastest-warming regions of the planet--and she was directly contributing to this by traveling there. She had carpooled with friends to Oslo from her hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden, with the final leg being a short boat ride to the islands. In between, there was a 500-mile flight from Oslo to Bodø. While you may think a shorter flight will have less of an effect, short flights produce up to larger amounts of greenhouse gas emissions per passenger per hour compared to longer routes. 

Research has found that it takes a lot of energy to get a fully loaded airliner 6 miles into the air. Upward of 25% of the fuel used on short flights is consumed during takeoff. Once the plane is at a cruising altitude, though, the aircraft becomes much more fuel-efficient, meaning that longer, direct journeys have a smaller carbon footprint than shorter connecting flights. 

However, for extremely long hauls, the extra fuel adds enough weight that the flight’s fuel efficiency is reduced, thereby increasing its carbon footprint per mile. There is a very delicate balance required to find the optimal distance for an air route that minimizes carbon dioxide emissions per passenger per mile. The Watchworld Institute placed the most fuel-efficient flight length at 2,600 miles, a bit longer than the distance between New York and Los Angeles. 

The idea that by flying to see these stunning landscapes, Rosén was contributing to the destruction of such a fragile, awe-inspiring place, was too much for her to handle. Ultimately, she decided to not fly anymore. She has only become more alarmed by the soaring increase of global emissions, going so far as to give up her spot in medical school to focus on rallying people to join her in her mission to reduce emissions from air travel. 

Her efforts are being boosted by another Swede, 16-year-old, renowned climate change activist Greta Thunberg, who gained recognition on the global stage when she went on strike from school last year to protest the Swedish government’s slow response to climate change. Her actions went on to spark a series of worldwide demonstrations, with millions of people, young and old people alike, taking to the streets to demand a more appropriate response to the climate crisis from their respective governments. 

Thunberg and Rosen are leading a global movement, one that wants you to feel ashamed to fly. The Swedes have coined a word for this ‘flight shame’, flygskam, and Thungberg has also pledged not to fly anymore, leading by example and taking various forms of transportation, from trains to boats, to make her way across the world. While some Swedish airports have reported a distinct decline in air travellers, the majority of people have not curbed their air travel. A record 31.6 million passengers were expected to travel on US airlines for the 2019 Thanksgiving holiday, CNN reported.  A one-way flight across the Atlantic from New York City to London emits one ton of carbon dioxide per passenger. There are upward of 2,500 flights over the North Atlantic every day. Those numbers are drastically high.

We are not here to judge you for continuing to fly, especially since we have not completely stopped flying ourselves, but we urge you to think more about reducing your air travel. Living between Beirut and the United States, I have been flying on planes since I was 1 month old. I am the first person to tell you that air travel is integral to my lifestyle and that it isn’t always practical, affordable, or feasible for me to travel slower. I am taking baby steps. For example, In traveling around Europe recently for a month and a half, I relied on buses and trains to get me around, and although it can sometimes take a little longer - it’s certainly possible. While it is not realistic for me to stop flying completely or immediately, I can try my best to take the least amount of flights possible and make the ones I do take, count.

With Capture, we hope to unleash climate warriors, helping people to track their emissions and learn more about lower-impact choices - making it easier to make a difference. One way to start… think before you fly. 

Goodbye for now,

Ruwan Teodros


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