Greta Thunberg Is Making People Rethink Air Travel: The Flight Shaming Movement

Should you take that next flight? Environmental activist Greta Thunberg suggests you reconsider for the sake of the environment. Flight Shaming, the idea that flying isn’t good for the environment, is on the rise and perhaps here to stay. Let’s explore the face behind the movement and how airlines will meet this growing trend.

Greta Thunberg flight shaming
Greta Thunberg is one of the leaders of a global movement pushing for change. Photo: EU Parliament & Alf van Beem via Wikimedia

What is Flight Shaming?

Flight shaming, also known as ‘flygskam’ in Greta’s native Swedish, is the concept of shunning air travel or encouraging others to shun it, in favor of less environmentally impactful travel methods, such as trains or boats.

Members are demanding airlines operate more fuel-efficient aircraft, that they offer carbon-neutral flights or that passengers should reconsider flying at all. The impact of this has been bigger than expected, with passengers down on airline SAS (by 2%) and fewer passengers in airports (Stockholm’s airport reported a 9% fall over last year).

Alternatives to air travel like train transport are seeing a renaissance. In fact, train travel is on the rise so much (8% alone in Sweden) that the Austrian rail service actually ordered 13 new sleeper railcars to keep up with demand. Germany has followed suit, slashing the price of rail tickets to encourage more environmentally friendly travel.

“We’re going to increase the cost of flying and make train tickets cheaper to reflect the cost of carbon dioxide emissions,” said German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz to Bloomberg.

Some politicians in France have taken an extra step, suggesting that some long-haul international routes and domestic flights be outright banned for their large carbon footprints.

ryanair Boeing 737
Traveling in Europe by train is seen as being more eco-friendly. Photo: Ryanair

But the flight shaming movement went into overdrive when young activist Greta Thunberg hit the headlines of the world’s media with her clear message about the environment.

Who is Greta Thunberg and what are her goals?

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old from Sweden, has become the face of the youth movement against climate change.

She began her journey at 15, when she decided to ‘strike’ from school and protest outside the Swedish parliament. She did this for two weeks, drawing media attention with her no holds barred message, and excuse me for the language, I am doing this because you adults are sh*tting on my future.”

“I am doing this because nobody else is doing anything. It is my moral responsibility to do what I can,” she said to the Guardian earlier this yearI want the politicians to prioritize the climate question, focus on the climate and treat it like a crisis.”

Greta Thunberg poses with her sign in 2018. Her sign read “school strike for climate”. Photo: Anders Hellberg via Wikimedia

Her blunt warning to the politicians of the world inspired her peers that felt that the ‘adults’ were not doing enough. This has led to several marches by students around the world, including some protests that reached over one million people.

Greta Thunberg has used her newfound fame to encourage others to think about their consumption, from eating less meat (or better yet going vegan) to reducing air travel.

What is Greta Thunberg’s message about air travel?

Greta Thunberg was invited to speak at the United Nations in New York last month, making the long journey from her home in Sweden. Instead of traveling by plane, she made a statement by traveling two weeks by a carbon-neutral sailing boat.

“By stopping flying, you don’t only reduce your own carbon footprint but also that sends a signal to other people around you that the climate crisis is a real thing and that helps push a political movement,” she said to the BBC via

Greta has confirmed that she has not flown on a plane since 2015.

But airlines and aviation unions are not happy by this growing trend, lambasting politicians for joining the green tide and leaving them behind.

“Unchallenged, this anti flying sentiment will grow and spread,” says Alexandre de Juniac, head of the International Air Transport Association to the Guardian “Politicians aren’t sticking up for us.”

How bad is flying for the environment?

A typical passenger traveling long-haul around the world will generate more carbon emissions in a single flight, than someone living in a third world country will in a year. Specifically, a passenger from London to New York will generate 986kg of CO2, which is more CO2 than a typical citizen of the bottom 56 countries in the world generates over 12 months.

With passenger numbers expected to hit seven billion trips by 2050 (and accounting for 22% of the world’s greenhouse gasses by then too), the relationship between flying and the environment couldn’t be more important.

Perhaps until air travel is more environmentally friendly, passengers should potentially ask if they really need to make that next trip.

How can air travel be more environmentally friendly?

Let us take the proposition that air travel is a big carbon emitter and that the ‘flight shaming’ trend will grow. Is there a solution that makes all parties satisfied?

The first step is to use more environmentally friendly aircraft. Planes such as the Boeing 787, Airbus A350 and Airbus’ neo variants all produce far fewer carbon emissions than the older types, through smarter design and the use of lightweight composite materials. Airlines are also working together to develop all-electric carbon-neutral designs that can replace aircraft for short distances.

Electric Airbus
Airbus is working with SAS to research the impact of introducing electric aircraft. Photo: Airbus

Additionally, using biofuel instead of normal petroleum is a proven method for airlines to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. United and Delta have both invested heavily in research and development of biofuels. Once it is a workable concept in terms of supply, we will likely see it rolled out worldwide.

The big equaliser in air travel has always been the price of fuel. But as airlines and airframe builders have raced to find ways to burn less fuel, they have also succeeded in developing greener aircraft. Such efforts save money and the planet alike.

Some have suggested simply taxing airlines a carbon fee… but as airlines are international, who do they pay? Their home countries? Foreign island destinations most impacted by climate change? The answer comes with its own long list of questions.

Air France, Domestic Flights, Carbon Neutral
Air France is to carbon offset every mainland domestic flight from January 2020. Photo: Air France

Should passengers also contribute?

But perhaps it’s not the airlines that have to change, but the passengers?

Some policymakers have suggested that an increased fee per flight to offset carbon emissions is required. After all, if you can afford that 10 EUR flight on Ryanair, you can certainly afford to pay for the carbon offset.

But some have pointed out that such an idea would instead just punish those who don’t fly much and have to save up for a once-a-year family holiday. Hence, maybe a frequent flyer levy is needed, one that hits you once you started to fly multiple times a year.

“Airlines believe we need a strategy that meets the government’s ambition of promoting sustainable growth for our sector. Aviation has to earn the right to expand and that’s why we’re committed to halving our emissions by 2050, and working with national governments to agree an ambitious plan that can deliver a zero-carbon future.” – Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, said to The Guardian.

What do you think? Is Greta Thunberg right about flying? Let us know in the comments. As this is quite a divisive issue, we do remind people to be polite and respect others’ views in the comments.