Flight Shame: Irresponsible, Ignorant And Dangerous

What happened to aviation? The industry has gone from being the hero that brings families together and the force that drives the world’s economies to the bad boy of climate change. Despite only contributing some 2% of all global CO2 emissions, flying has become something we should seek to do less of, to feel bad about… ashamed even.

Lufthansa A340 rainbow
Should we all feel ashamed to fly? Photo: Getty

The trend for boycotting travel by air is showing no signs of slowing down. Many of the more radical campaigners feel that it would be better for the world if all aircraft stopped flying tomorrow. But what are the consequences of this?

I had the pleasure of meeting a tourism expert with strong opinions on this subject at the recent AviaDev Europe conference. Ged Brown is the Aviation Development Director at AviaDev, and is also the founder and CEO of Low Season Traveller. He was kind enough to share his thoughts with us on flight shame:

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The rise of flygskam

Flight-shame or “flygskam” has been an expression which we have seen increasingly in 2019. It could nearly be the word of the year.

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In Sweden, where the term originated, it has led to a notable decline in people taking internal flights This has been helped by the fact that all government workers now have to travel by train or car for any domestic travel.

The ethos and thinking behind the movement is clear. If we all took fewer flights, then we will do less damage to the environment and our planet.

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Simple. But is it really that effective and at what cost?

flight shame
If we all stopped flying tomorrow, would it really fix everything? Photo: Unsplash

Aviation is always the bad guy

Aviation is nearly always the first industry sector to be maligned when it comes to environmental issues and I always wonder why this is?

Perhaps it’s because we all see airplanes in the skies on a frequent basis; perhaps it harks back to the days when aviation and air travel were seen as an extravagance; or perhaps it’s the absence of any other target?

But just how big an impact does aviation have on the environment?

Well, to examine this we have to look at some data and this in itself is complicated.

Who holds the data on climate change contributions?

Here’s a question for you. Which body is THE global authority on environmental issues? Which is the organization which holds all of the absolute, undisputed facts on environmental issues like climate change, emissions, global warming etc.?

You’d think that this organization would be well known, but I’m not sure that there is just one. Even just looking for statistics on which industries are the biggest contributors, we have to search through multiple sources to find anything meaningful. Perhaps if this information was easier to find, more people could understand the reality.

CO2 graph
Even just trying to find all the data is a tough task. Source: NASA

For aviation, the best and most trustworthy international aggregator of this sort of information is IATA. According to IATA, aviation makes up just 2% of human-induced CO2 emissions. This can be compared to 17% for road transport and 3% from the shipping sector.

But what about those contrails? All those harmful gasses delivered right into the atmosphere? Well, did you know that between 91.5% and 92.5% of aircraft engine exhaust is normal atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen?

Driving down aviation’s emissions

Despite its relatively small contribution to the overall CO2 pool, as an industry, aviation continues to play its part in further reducing its impact on the environment. This is being achieved through creation of lighter and significantly more fuel-efficient aircraft, as well as a significant amount of research being done in the field of alternative fuel sources.

A320neo
Investment in newer, more efficient aircraft is driving down CO2. Photo: Lufthansa

Since the 1960’s, technical developments mean today’s new aircraft emit 50% less carbon monoxide and 90% less smoke and unburned hydrocarbons than those made 50 years ago. Nitrogen oxide (NOx) levels have also been cut, and modern aircraft now emit 40% less nitrogen oxide than in 1981.

As a result of these technological improvements, aircraft can often have less impact on local air quality around airports than road traffic: in some cases, 95% of the local particulate matter comes from cars, trucks and other ground vehicles, rather than aircraft.

So much work has been done but there is a lot more to do and the aviation industry continues to work hard on further improvements that are well documented on the IATA website. There is a recognition that even 2% of all global emissions is significant and needs to be reduced drastically.

What if we all stopped flying tomorrow?

If all aircraft stopped flying tomorrow, it would have practically no impact on the warming of our planet nor the environment. It would be literally a drop in the ocean. The detrimental effect on other areas of life on our planet would be hugely significant though.

Aviation tax
What are the consequences of a world without aviation? Photo: Needpix

Let’s talk about context when we discuss “flight shame”.  Let’s consider the ROE – Return on Emissions.  What benefits do we receive globally in return for this particular 2% of global emissions?

We get 3.6% of the world’s GDP: The global air transport industry, at 3.6% of global GDP, is larger than both the automobile manufacturing sector and the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry. In fact, if air transport were a country, its GDP would rank 20th in the world, similar to that of Switzerland or Argentina.

We get 38 million jobs which are supported by the global aviation industry. This figure rises to 65 million if we include tourism jobs, which are also supported by aviation.

Trade. Over a third of all international trade worldwide is sent by air, although in terms of volume of goods, the amount is less than 1% of all goods transported worldwide. However, many of these goods are time-sensitive; things like food and medicine, which would simply spoil if transported terrestrially.

Not bad returns for less than 2% of all global emissions.

What if we cut emissions by half?

So, what if we halved the emissions on aviation over the next 10 years? We would reduce the global emissions by 1%. That would be great, but clearly not a huge difference in the great scheme of things.

Far more could be saved by halving the emissions of the shipping industry (currently 3% of global CO2 emissions) or even reducing the emissions of road transport by 5% (currently makes up 17% of global CO2 emissions).

flight shame
Just reducing traffic CO2 by 5% would have the same effect as halving aviation’s emissions. Photo: Pixabay

So, does aviation have a role to play in the environmental challenges ahead of us?  Absolutely!  Should it always be the number one target for action? Absolutely not.

But why is air travel so maligned?

Does aviation struggle to stand up for itself?

One of the reasons that flight shame has become such a hugely well-known movement this year is down to the mobilization of individuals. The inimitably charismatic Greta Thunberg and he ability to motivate young people en-masse has really given the campaign some legs. Heap on top of that the efforts of highly visible environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion, and it’s impossible not to hear their message

Aviation could stand up for itself too. If even just a small proportion of those who benefit from aviation got together and made some noise, the message would be just as loud and clear. The challenge is that aviation benefits so many aspects of our global society and communities that it would be impossible to gather all of those parties together to lobby successfully.

flight shame
The loud voices of the opponents make it hard for the benefits of aviation to be heard. Photo:Extinction Rebellion

There are approximately 300 international airlines in the skies today and they benefit thousands of communities globally.  Aviation brings people together, engenders cross-cultural understanding, fosters peace and drives trade. In many respects, it is the glue that holds the global community together.

The supreme irony is that the reason for aviation being such a target for the environmental lobby, is because the benefits of aviation are just too broad and diverse; they positively affect too many aspects of our society.  As such, the lobby for the benefits of aviation cannot be brought together due to the sheer volume of stakeholders.

As such, flight shame is not only wrong, but it is highly irresponsible and quite possibly one of the most dangerous movements for the environmental challenges ahead of us.

ANA, Boeing 767, Engine Fire
Flight shame is irresponsible. Photo: Getty Images

Overall

Ged’s take on flight shame is a refreshing rhetoric, and one which needs to be considered most carefully. Making life difficult for our airlines by slapping ineffective ‘green taxes’ on them won’t help the situation, particularly if those revenues are not used to further the development of things like R&D or sustainable aviation fuels.

Stopping aviation is not an option. Until we master the art of teleportation, far too much of the global economy relies on connectivity in the air. People should not feel ashamed to fly; they should feel proud that they are supporting an industry that has done more to drive down its own carbon footprint in the past 30 years than almost any other.

Let’s get behind our airlines and campaign to put in place the support they need to create a sustainable future for aviation.

As always, please do share your own thoughts in the comments.

Simple Flying worked alongside Ged Brown, Founder and CEO of Low Season Traveller, to produce this post. Check out their podcasts for insight on visiting popular destinations at off-peak times.

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Ace

A more meaningful impact one can have on a personal level is reducing on a general level.

Cut out nonessential travel whether be by train, plane or auto. Staycations vs trips out of town. Businesses could do better to teleconference vs having to be in person to “seal the deal”.

Reducing the amount of food and buy local and in season items as much as possible. Same for other goods.

Aviation is the easy pickings but it’s only one small part of the problem.

Norman

The average person produces 2.3 pound of CO2 per day. There are 7.8 billion people in the world of whom approximately 29% are children. Go figure Greta !

Eamon

I’m fascinated by the number of vote-downs that this comment has received, even though the data you quoted is correct. It seems that people become uncomfortable at the suggestion that children are CO2 sources (and will become MUCH bigger CO2 sources when they grow up). This type of narrative doesn’t suit pot-smoking, anti-aviation lefties, who generally like to breed like rabbits…

Karl

@Eamon

What is truly fascinating is the number of scientifically illiterate people who are commenting at the Simple Flying website.

joe a

Sorry Eamon, you are correct, I do not have a Doctorate in Environmental Science but I do have a Doctorate in common sense from the Brooklyn School of street sense and when one of the main centers of Global Warming/Climate Change/The New Name of the Day have to fudge data from the ocean water temp gauges around the world to build their L graphs to justify their “scientific” finding; that is an immediate flag to me that the whole thing is a bunch of baloney.

Bryce

@Norman
Excellent point.
Taking 2.3 pounds to be approx. 1 kg, human exhalation amounts to 365 kg per person per year, which corresponds to 2.8 billion tons of C02 per year for the entire human race. In contrast, aviation produces less than 50 million tons of CO2 per year.

Karl

@Bryce

You should be embarrassed of approving of @Norman’s scientifically illiterate post.

Bryce

And you consider yourself to be raised above all others in scientific debate?
I’m not going to ask for your permission to approve or disapprove of anyone’s comments.
Maybe you should humble-up a bit 😉

Karl

@Bryce

On the contrary, @Norman is not engaging in scientific discourse, he is spreading false information — seemingly based on sheer ignorance — and you seemed to approve of it.

Hence, your accusation that I supposedly “consider myself to be raised above all others in scientific debate” looks more like a straw man. 😉

Bryce

Norman didn’t “spread any false science”: he made a factually correct set of statements, without attaching any further discussion of them. You’re the one who interpreted his statements as suggesting a particular argument 😉 I will continue to approve of Norman’s comment, by raising the following point, which further builds upon your various comments above: If plant matter on earth can effortlessly re-absorb the 2.8 billion tons of CO2 produced by human respiration every year, then it can also effortlessly absorb the 50 million tons of CO2 produced by aviation every year…seeing as 50 million tons only represents 1.8% of… Read more »

Karl

@Bryce said: “then it can also effortlessly absorb the 50 million tons of CO2 produced by aviation every year”

Actually, your number is off by a factor of 18 (+).

By 2050, your number could well be off by a factor of 100.

Quote:”CO2 emissions from all commercial operations in 2018 totaled 918 million metric tons—2.4% of global CO2 emissions from fossil fuel use. Using aviation industry values, there has been a 32% increase in emissions over the past five years.”

https://theicct.org/publications/co2-emissions-commercial-aviation-2018

Karl

@Norman

I’m sorry, but this is just scientific ignorance. The CO2 we’re breathing out is part of a natural cycle, by which our bodies convert carbohydrates from CO2-absorbing plants into energy, plus water and CO2. As such, we’re not adding any extra CO2. In contrast, burning fossil fuels releases CO2 which has been locked up for millions of years, producing a net contribution to global warming.

https://skepticalscience.com/breathing-co2-carbon-dioxide.htm

Bryce

@Karl
Glad you raised that point.
In a similar manner, switching to synthetic fuels in aviation will also produce a “natural cycle”, since CO2 captured to manufacture the fuel will then be released again.
KLM has already started a joint venture to produce synthetic fuel from used cooking oil, but it could also be produced using algae, if that becomes viable any time soon.
Problem solved…we can all continue flying 🙂

Bryce

@Karl
Your reply to Norman needs to be nuanced.
The CO2 we exhale will remain in the atmosphere UNTIL IT’s RE-ABSORBED. Since the human population is increasing but the vegetative coverage of the earth is decreasing, there’s nothing to absorb that extra CO2…except the oceans (which is not conducive) and soil.

Karl

@Bryce Here’s a good explanation why you are wrong — so, there’s no need for “nuance”: Quote: “How is it then that we don’t worry about the massive amounts of carbon dioxide that are released with every breath taken by the billions and billions of people and animals that inhabit the world? Because every atom of carbon in the exhaled carbon dioxide comes from food that was recently produced by photosynthesis. Everything we eat, save for a few inorganic components like salt, was in some way produced by photosynthesis. This is obvious when we eat plant products such as grains,… Read more »

Bryce

Wrong again Karl.
You’re neglecting carbon stored in soil. We’re no longer hunter/gatherers: we practice agriculture, which causes depletion of vast reserves of Soil Organic Carbon (SOC). In effect, we’re (ultimately) eating the soil. In a way, agriculture is like fossil fuel burning…except the fossil fuel is SOC, and the “burning” is occurring in our metabolisms.

Karl

@Bryce

There are plenty of ways to implement a sustainability strategy for agriculture.

https://www.biovision.ch/en/news/sustainable-agriculture-reduces-co2-emissions/

Matt

What was missed in the article is that these people are trying to end Western society. These principles were originally pushed by the KGB as a psychological weapon. I would suggest people look up Yuri Bezmenov and his warnings. These useful idiots only goal is complete destruction, and it’s working better than anyone could have expected. It’s not just the airline industry. It’s everywhere. While Asia is modernizing at an unprecedented rate, in Europe or North America it takes decades to build something that takes months in China. Look at the Berlin Airport as an example.

High Mile Club

Agreed. And Let’s not forget there are millions of cars globally compared to just thousands of aircraft.

Bryce

A small glimmer of hope: IATA have started rather intensive advertising on CNN / CNBC in which they highlight how innovative the aviation industry is, and how it has substantially cut emissions in the past decades. So they’ve actually started the anti-climate-shame offensive. And now the bad news: the average person has the intellect of a brick, and likes to be part of a herd. And, if the herd (irrationally) decides that something or someone is evil, then all the herd members will move in tandem to support that stance. It’s not just aviation that is a herd target: other… Read more »

High Mile Club

Finding a way to combat stupidity is the key to winning the ultimate Darwinist award.

Aaa

They are destroying everything they want to save. The more they complain, they more they make people hate anything associated with climate change. A year ago people would have maybe listened to them, now we are deliberately doing things that negatively impact the environment because we will not be forced to change for the worse. Aviation is a positive addition to the world and the more they tell you to stop, the more flights we will go on even if it is just to turn around and go back again!

Ian Mathew

I would like to see that

Milan

Some facts are conveniently left out of this argument. With 2% of global emissions, aviation accounts for much more emissions than many countries. Also, emissions per passenger kilometre are far higher for flights than most other forms of transport. Of course it’s unrealistic to stop all flights completely and immediately, but an honest, transparent discussion is needed which recognises that at least on most shorter routes, trains are practical and far greener than air travel.

Eamon

Jesus help us, here we go again.
I need to get to Ireland next week. Can you tell me which train I should take?
Hint: there’s this thing called sea in the way…

John

I’m sick to the back teeth of reading articles filled with statistical whataboutery. Aviation produces harmful emissions. So what if another sector produces more? The progress in producing alternative fuels has been next to zero and that is the problem here. It is much easier to circle the wagons and engage in po faced grumbling about shaming than acknowledge this. I can be an aviation enthusiast but I can still recognize the problems caused by environmental destruction and don’t feel the need to be in denial.

Bryce

Great, so we stop all aviation, and save 2% CO2 emission in so doing.
And now, what’s your plan for the remaining 98%?

High Mile Club

I think you missed the part.
“Despite only contributing some 2% of all global CO2 emissions”
“But what about those contrails? All those harmful gasses delivered right into the atmosphere? Well, did you know that between 91.5% and 92.5% of aircraft engine exhaust is normal atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen?”

Far out...

“ between 91.5% and 92.5% of aircraft engine exhaust is normal atmospheric oxygen and nitrogen?” lol! What a meaningless statistic – the atmosphere is 80% nitrogen anyway which is not involved in combustion. what they’re really saying is that about 8% of all aircraft exhaust is non-normal gases, that is, pollution.
Who cares what proportion of pollutants the industry contributes compared to other industries?! It’s like saying I can chuck my plastic bottles into the sea in country A because country B is so much worse then us.

Karl

@Joanna Bailey Why didn’t you check what the ICAO* is saying about the issue Contributing 3.0 % — not just 2% as you are saying — of the total of the anthropogenic radiative forcing by all human activities; if aviation was a country, it would be among the 10 biggest emitters, ahead of nations like Brazil, Mexico, and the UK. The International Civil Aviation Organization forecasts that aviation emissions could grow by 300-700% by 2050. It’s not the aviation industry that is really the problem — it’s the fossil fuel lobby. For decades, fossil fuel interests have been running a… Read more »

Bryce

@Karl
Liquid hydrogen aircraft are NOT “very doable”…they’re “sort of doable”, with SEVERE safety-related question marks. That’s why their introduction is not foreseen for at least 10-15 years.

If you want to save 2% CO2 emission, why pick on aviation only? Why not pick on the cement and steel industries, for example? Or start programs to limit population growth, for instance?

Karl

@Bryce Liquid hydrogen would be an excellent fuel in a distributed hybrid LH2/electric propulsion system where a single large subsonic gas turbine would generate electricity to power electric fans by producing thrust from both the E-fans and the gas turbine engine. Because the peak power of an aircraft engine, which is presently only used at takeoff, is generated by both the single gas turbine and E-fans running on power from either batteries or fuel cells, the single gas turbine can be significantly smaller than it is today. Hence, the gas turbine engine integration into the aft fuselage would seem to… Read more »

Bryce

@Karl I’m aware of how attractive LH is as a potential fuel. However, just because it’s attractive does not mean that it’s possible. – LH in combination with a fuel cell (RedOx reaction) is simple, and is already being introduced to power land-based vehicles. However, it doesn’t provide the energy density necessary for aviation. – LH in combination with a combustion chamber (direct oxidation reaction) is a nightmare! This form of propulsion already exists in rockets…and I don’t have to explain how relatively unsafe they are! As regards your link: I’m aware of how attractive mechanical carbon capture is. But… Read more »

Karl

@Bryce said: “If you want to save 2% CO2 emission,”

Again, it is now estimated that the aviation industry contribute to about 3.0 % of the total of the anthropogenic radiative forcing by all human activities. With the amount of CO2 emissions from aviation expected to grow around 3-4 per cent per year, the aviation industry could if nothing is done, contribute to more than 20 % in the year 2050 of the total of the anthropogenic radiative forcing by all human activities.

High Mile Club

I’d be more worried about getting emissions down on cars than aircraft. Why is it that I’m required to get my vehicle inspected for emissions every two years, but planes don’t?

JFP

The Swedish say it best: Flygskam! With the emphasis on “scam”! If that brat doesn’t want to work, she doesn’t have to. But, don’t be so damn self-righteous and sanctimonious that there are those of us who work to earn a living (instead of by intellectual prostitution) and provide a service that’s in demand.

Greta, there’s a place for you. And, the warming is quite intense…

Ron Kuhlmann

Oh, I so agree. Plus.the social and economic toll would be horrific. Countries like Thailand which derive almost half of their GDP from tourism would be devastated and even the Europeans, who could still get numbers by train, would take significant hits. Draconian solutions are never the answer.

Chill

Calm down people. No one is saying stop flying, even though the article implies it, just take a lower carbon producing form of transport when it makes sense to do so

David

I guess the materials and the fuels, the power to drive the industry that manufactures all the bits to make thousands of aircraft is also a factor. Seems to me the argument is open ended and in simple all embracing terms the world is becoming over populated. End of story. Right now the sun is shining. I don’t need to fly anywhere to lie on a beach in another country and I can get a curry down the the road too. Half the travel is perhaps a waste.