Flight shaming has been on the rise in the past few years with growing calls to ground all aircraft and for travellers to stop flying altogether. As increasing numbers of people become more conscious of their environmental impact on the world the focus has inevitably turned to what is percieved as one of its biggest polluters, flying, and those travellers who fly a lot have come under increasing demands to stop. Envioronmental concerns are a good thing, but flight shaming is illogical and wrong, and is not the way to help the envioronment. In fact flight shaming may do far more harm than good.
The term flight shaming comes from the literal translation of the Swedish ‘flygskam’, which is where the term was coined. The premise is actually very simple, flying is bad for the climate because it increases your carbon footprint significantly, so you should feel shame for contributing to that and take steps to reduce it. It’s not overly complicated, even if it isn’t correct in its oversimplification. The problem is in todays cancel culture nonsense it has of course become something far more insidious. The concept of flight shaming has become literally that, instead of feeling shame and looking at your own behaviours, it is literally now the act of shaming others, of bullying and berating and judging them for their percieved actions, and has become a rallying cry to call for all flights to be grounded completely.
But is it right to judge and bully others simply because they travel? Is the argument for shaming travellers justified because of climate concerns? Is the airline industry being unfairly maligned?
The Latest Virtue Signal.
It should go without saying that the calls to shame anyone and bully travellers over social media is wrong. Cancel culture in and of itself is abhorent. This is more than simply espousing and campaigning for a belief, this is literally judging and going after people for something they are doing that some people percieve as wrong when there is no scientific, moral or social consensus on that thing being the case.
Travellers are being attacked and shamed on social media while others are being cancelled completely, and it has to be asked by who exactly? Greta Thunberg? Who has no problem giving a self righteous ‘how dare you’ speech while flying entire teams of people to every climate conference there is or on whirlwind celibrity talking circuits? Gwyneth Paltrow who lectures on climate change before climbing back on board her private jet that brought her there? Joanna Lumley? Who has made more travel content in recent years than most travel bloggers combined but now thinks everyone else should be rationed? Maybe the founder of Extinction Rebellion then? Who states do as I say and not as I do as she drives around in a diesel car and jets off on her own luxury holidays?
It certainly can’t be the politicians attending the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference can it? Every one without fail flying entire entourages and fleets of 4X drives in while they arrive themselves on individual private jets?
How about those less famous, who clamour to shout how virtuous they are on social media, screaming about those who fly too much at the same time as they complain about antimaskers whilst themselves contributing to a sea of plastic waste over the last year with disposable face masks. It seems those who love outrage culture don’t have the best sense of irony.
Flight shaming has definitely becaome the lastest cause célèbre, people love espousing how virtuous they are by calling for it, but only if their calls don’t affect their own behaviour of course.
Are they right to do so though? Is calling for all flights to be grounded in the name of climate change the right thing to do?
The Facts About Flying And Climate Change.
Now there is no denying that climate change is a serious issue, and there is no doubt that flying does contribute to greenhouse gasses and is not perfect. One of the big problems however is that there is very little scientific consenus on just how harmful it is if at all. Often the data is unclear, extremely confusing, sparce and sometimes even contradictory, which does not help having a strong, reasoned debate.
The numbers do differ very slightly but according to what can be considered the world authorities on the subject, the International Air Transport Association states that commercial aviation is responsible for about 2-3% of global carbon emissions. The Air Transport Action Group puts that figure at around 2%, and the US Envioronmental Protection Agency puts the figure at around 3% of total carbon emissions in the US, while according to a study by the International Council on Clean Transportation emissions of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide from all commercial flights, including cargo and passenger planes, represented 2.4% of all global CO2 emissions in 2018.
I have seen much lower and much higher figures quoted but as far as I can tell these are the most respectable and reasonable sources to use and they are all relatively similar.
So absolutely flying does contribute to greenhouse gasses and climate change, but let’s be realistic here, the numbers aren’t exactly large are they? Putting them into context means comparing the 2.5% contribution average of flying to other forms of transport and other sectors entirely. Transportation as a whole makes up to 29% of greenhouse gas emissions with cars being the largest contributor. So is it more harmful to drive than fly? Maybe if there is only one person in the car but maybe not if there are 4? Or should we just ban cars completely? Agriculture is 9%, so should we stop eating? How about the electricity industry which is around 28%? Tropical deforestation currently accounts for 8% of the world’s annual CO2 emissions. Suddenly the facts aren’t as clear.
What is the point of a virtue signalling hippy not flying to the Costa Del Sol this year when China is pumping out countless new coal fired plants? You certainly don’t see Extinction Rebellion trying their tactics on Chinese Riot Police.
If everyone stopped flying tomorrow and all planes were forever grounded again, quite frankly it would barely make a damn bit of difference.
Does that mean it is not a good idea to try and reduce the impact flying has on the planet? No. Does it mean that we shouldn’t force the industry, and by extension governments to do more? Of course not! Does it mean that we can’t play a part ourselves and do things as individuals that can make a difference? Hell no!
What it does mean is that we need to look at things in a broader context and what it absolutely means is that flight shaming is the wrong approach. Climate change is real, reducing everyones carbon footprint is a good thing, but stopping flying does nothing, flight shaming is illogical virtue signalling and we need to find a better way.
Flying As A Way Of Life.
Let’s face it, flying is a way of life and an integral part of modern society. It allows us, and the entire world to be more connected than ever before, it allows us to travel for leisure and that is something I have certainly enjoyed the benefits of myself, but it is also the lifeblood of the global community and the heart of global economy and trade. The global aviation and tourism industry accounts for around 36.7 million jobs around the world. If we grounded all planes and everyone stopped flying our way of life would ground to a halt.
What about those countries that do not have great alternative land travel options?
What about those remote regions or countries where flights are a literal lifeline and there are no other options?
Flying is just too integral to modern life. Society is just too dependent on it. There is no going back. To suggest otherwise is simply not realistic.
Flying As A Vehicle For Change.
As I said before the goal of reducing carbon emissions is a noble one, but that is not something that individual travellers can do themselves. Not completely. There are things individuals can do yes and I’ll get to them later but those who have the biggest force for change here is the airline industry itself and the development of new, cleaner and more efficient fleets.
And what will fuel that change? Demand.
If less people fly, the less money and incentive the airline industry has to make positive changes. The more people fly the more incentive and money the airlines will have to invest in new and better technologies. It is that simple.
The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change targets for carbon neutrality by 2050 is something that the airline industry is working toward, but without investment and without consumer spending they will not be able to do that. It is clear that the demand is there with studies showing consumers will look for more carbon efficient flights, and airlines have responded.
Lufthansa is starting to operate Co2 neutral frieght flights, newer engines are starting to replace older less efficient ones, the new Dreamliner has engines that reduce CO2 emissions by about 20% in comparison to older models. and investment is being made in hybrid electric and hydrogen fuelled planes.
Now of course it isn’t as simple as all that.
Airlines still run largely on the first class and business models which are per person significantly higher producers of carbon, which is something that can easily be changed. More efficient air traffic control procedures and flight plans could reduce fuel consumption. Even down to controlling cabin waste, the sheer amount of single use plastic on board flights and food waste is insane! And while we are on the subject how much plastic waste is produced with airports enforcing a ridiculous 100 ml rule and forcing people to use smaller bottles of liquid and throw away barely opened bottles of water every year? Everything can be improved in some way.
Governments themselves have a role to play too, and not just by slapping more and more ‘green taxes’ on airlines which only hurt the poorest consumer and as simple revenue raising aren’t in general ring fenced for carbon reduction, but by instead offering tax incentives and grants to those airlines who do improve fleets and invest in technological upgrades and research. Governments can even help by subsidising train travel as much as it does the airline industry, helping the case for overland travel as well.
Zero Carbon flying may seem like a pipe dream at the moment, but in an industry that has done more to reduce its carbon impact over the last few decades than arguably any other, if anyone has a shot at it it will be the airline industry, but it won’t do that without demand. Or income. Flying more, not less, will help airlines push for improvements/
The Positive Impact Of Travel.
Then of course is the impact of travel itself. Travel is not a bad thing, it is not an evil thing, in fact it can have a hugely positive impact on the world, and flight shaming people to reduce or destroy travel completely takes that away.
Tourism is perhaps the last line of defence many wildlife species and their habitats have against large logging, farming or palm oil industries. What would happen to protected land and national parks without the money from tourism when the nice guy with the big cheque and the logging equipment shows up? I’ll tell you what happens, the palm oil industry would take over the entire Borneo rainforest and orangutans would become extinct. Locals would have no reason to conserve the natural habitats of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Lions or elephants wouldn’t be allowed to roam land in Africa that locals can’t earn money off and the poachers and game hunters will arrive with money instead.
Tourism has an essential impact on wildlife and habitat conservation, and you know what fuels that tourism? Flying!
Without traavellers on flights entire remote areas would be almost entirely cut off from the world. Whole communities, in many cases entire countries, who rely on tourism would have an important source of income devestated.
You know what would stop that from happening? Flying!
Now of course there are always ways individual travellers can make a difference too, and in many ways this is what backpackers have always done in their pursuit of a slower way of travel.
If anyone were to suggest that it is better to take the night bus down from Chiang Mai to Bangkok rather than a cheap flight, then I would consider that a perfectly reasonable argument. It is a journey I have done myself countless times and is a quintessential part of the backpacker experience in Thailand. If you say no one should ever fly to Thailand again you are likely to get a clip around the earhole.
And again, if someone where to suggest that train travel in the UK should be heavily subsidised to give people a genuine option over flying internally, or even to give a viable alternative to short hops over to Europe where intercontinental train travel is better I’d be all for that! It’s a great idea! To stop the quick hops from Manchester or London to Spain or Brussels is just ridiculous.
If someone said the US should introduce more national trains and overland options, absolutely! But let’s face it in many cases the distances are too great for that to be a viable option, especially if speed is an esential factor in a journey.
And sailing can be a great way to get around the world for shorter distances, but the world is not going back to sailing ships en masse!
It’s all about reasonableness, and flight shaming anyone for travelling or flying at all is not reasonable.
There are dozens of ways you can personally reduce your carbon footprint and be a more socially and envioronmentally conscious traveller, reducing plastic waste with a refillable water filter bottle, travel more slowly, travel light, consume locally, choose a fan over air con, or just acclimatise to the heat, these are things that backpackers in general have been doing for decades now, so in terms of carbon offset, many of us have been good for a while!
When what we do as individuals, and the damage flying done is dwarved significantly by what can and arguably should be being done at an industry and governmental level, then I think flight shaming is shown up to be utterly illogical, ridiculous and wrong.
It’s Time To Stop Shaming People.
Travellers are not evil people. They are not killing the planet. Someone deciding to take a quick holiday once or twice a year or a constant traveller flying around the world aren’t the Anti Christ.
Psychologically attacking and shaming people will not have the desired result that campaigners want. People will dig in, fight back and stick two fingers in your face with a hearty fuck you, and rightfully so.
Self righteous mobs never have a place in judging anyone. The last two years of witch hunts and mobs forming over covid19 vacinnes proves that point, people were not killing grandma and they weren’t selfish for making personal medical decisions that were right for them, yet the self righteous blame and anger coming from the mob actually made it harder for medical professionals to encourage vaccinations for those who could clinically get it. It seems like some people just like carrying around that Malleus Malificarum no matter what the cause.
Shaming is wrong and cancel culture is deplorable. Neither work or do anything other than give those who use it a false sense of self righteousness. It’s time to stop.
If you want to fly a little less and take a train or a bus a bit more often, that is awesome, good for you. If you want to fly then do so. No one has any right or ground to judge you for any of those decisions either way. Flight shaming has had its day, now lets all push for a better cleaner planet without ridiculous extremism shall we? And in the meantime, let’s keep travelling as much as we want and make travel a force for good again!
Did you enjoy this article? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below or on my Facebook or Twitter pages and please feel free to share it with any or all of the social media buttons. If you want to get more great backpacking tips, advice and inspiration, please subscribe to updates via email in the box to your right.
How To Make Your Gap Year Responsible, Ethical And Sustainable.
It’s Time To Open Up International Travel Now.
Exactly as you said, this is just the latest virtue signal for people to feel moray superior about. It doesn’t actually affect any positive change.
They want you to give up foreign holidays, gas boilers, petrol cars, meat but politicians can’t even give up private jets.
Well we can only have rules like this for the plebs, don’t you know!
Once again you hit the nail right on the head.
Agreed completely. We live in a throwaway society, ship stuff across the world daily, and now we’re entering the season where we’re encouraged to buy as much as possible just for the sake of it in the name of Christmas, and yet stopping a holiday or two a year will save us all? After covid I’m done listening to the fear peddling and what we must do to save everyone.
The hypocrisy and selective messaging is very tiresome, I agree.
So just shouting at people who fly is going to save the planet is it? OK then. Keep wearing those plastic masks sheeple.
Very well said. Travel is a net benefit. The more people see of the world the better care they’ll take of it.
Very true Eli
I agree completely but I would be supportive of measures or initiatives to reduce domestic and business/first class travel, subsidising trains, especially in the UK etc. I think those measures would be more acceptable.
I don’t think many people would disagree with a reasonable discussion on those things Louise, I’m all for making train travel as cheap as possible and expanding choice! But as always it is the extreme views on banning flights that shout the loudest.
When they make trains and public transport cheap and much more reliable I’ll think about not flying short haul or domestic. Until then …
I completely agree Chris.