'Flight shaming' movement to cut carbon emisssions only working in one country, stats show

One could be mistaken for thinking the world is finally waking up to the issue of climate change. 

Greta Thunberg has been lauded for her environmental activism, Extinction Rebellion has staged high-profile protests, and last Friday millions of students and workers around the world took to the streets as part of an eight-day Global Climate Strike. 

Celebrities and politicians are driving the bandwagon, with the likes of Emmanuel Macron and the Duke of Sussex especially vocal about cutting our collective carbon footprint. Such statements play well on social media – an influencer pleading for us to save the planet is a magnet for "likes".   

So is all this noble talk having any impact on us, or are we just nodding along while refusing to change our lifestyles? 

For most people who live in a developed country, the biggest single contributor to their personal carbon footprint – way above eating meat and heating their home – is flying. A single return journey generates more emissions in a few hours than the average person in dozens of developing countries produces in an entire year.

So it goes without saying that anyone who claims to be an "environmentalist" – and that's an awful lot of people – probably ought to be flying less. Yet the latest aviation statistics from Airports Council International Europe show that the reverse is true. It's business as usual. 

The continent as a whole witnessed a 4.3 per cent year-on-year increase in air passengers during the first six months of 2019, with the likes of Austria, Croatia, Estonia, Ukraine, Georgia, Albania and North Macedonia seeing double-digit growth and Luxembourg, Portugal, Spain, Latvia, Poland, Hungary and Romania above average rises. 

In fact, just four European countries have experienced a fall in air traffic in 2019. Iceland, thanks to a drop-off in tourism and the collapse of WOW air (-20.3 per cent), Turkey, hindered by a recession (-1.4 per cent), and Bulgaria, which has the world's fastest shrinking population (-2.5 per cent). 

The fourth is something of an anomaly. Sweden appears to be the only country in Europe – and is probably the only one in the world – where fewer people are flying because of environmental concerns. The drop there (-4.1 per cent for the first six months of the year) has even been significant enough for the chief executive of Scandinavian Airlines to express concerns


It is no coincidence that Greta Thunberg hails from the Scandinavian country, and the 16-year-old's activism is one of the key reasons why Swedes are shunning air travel. Her calls for action (and the example she has set) helped spark the "flygskam" (flight shame) movement, which – according to Google Trends – first manifested itself at the beginning of 2018 but really kicked into gear at the end of last year.

Spread via social media, it has seen thousands of Swedes pledge to quit flying – while shaming those who still choose to fly when other transport options are available. Indeed, an accompanying movement, "tagskryt" (train boasting) has developed, and one of the country's railway companies recently claimed bookings on some routes have doubled.

Media reports have suggested flight shaming is spreading across the Baltic to other European nations. For example, Flight Free UK (flightfree.co.uk) launched in February with the goal of persuading 100,000 Britons to give up flying for 2020. But no other nation has seen green concerns have the same impact on travel.

So what makes Sweden special? First and foremost, it has long been an eco-conscious country, with various sources ranking it the world's most "sustainable" nation. It is ahead of the game when it comes to recycling, renewable energy, and innovations such as zero-carbon or "passive" homes. It also has one of Europe's highest percentage of vegans.

But some believe there is another factor behind the willingness of Swedes to give up flying. "Swedes are very conforming people," explains Zoe Le Pluart, a Malmo resident for the last 20 years. "So when both government policy and dozens of influencers on social media tell them that protecting the environment is important, they act. Not everyone has embraced the movement, of course, but it has become the 'in' thing, and people proudly tell their friends and neighbours they are cancelling their travel plans and choosing to spend the summer at home."

In contrast with some countries, where bragging about luxury travel seems the norm, Nordic nations have a code of conduct called The Law of Jante, which portrays overt personal ambition and non-conformity as inappropriate. The popular Swedish proverb "lagom är bäst", sometimes translated as "there is virtue in moderation", further explains why the country has embraced cutting back on air travel. 

Le Pluart adds that there is now real fear among young Swedes about revealing their air travel habits. She says: "I have to fly regularly for work and it is really frowned upon. It is now like being the only smoker among a group of non-smokers. Perhaps they won't always say something when you pull out a cigarette, but the disapproval is clear."

The Telegraph, London

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