Environmental activists have been working overtime to stop impending environmental disaster due to rising global temperatures and accompanying sea levels. Dramatic scientific studies have warned us about what will happen if we don’t change course, leading to multiple movements to improve consumer habits for the benefit of our world. One prominent movement sweeping Europe is known as flight shame – Flysgskam in Swedish. Given the carbon emissions that are released by commercial planes, flight shame refers to the guilt travelers should feel when flying over their contribution to the global warming crisis.
Is it fair for Europe to police air travel?
Championed by activists like Greta Thunberg, the flight shaming movement makes a lot of incorrect assumptions about the way people live in other places. Don’t get me wrong – I think Greta Thunberg is a hero, but there are institutional and logistical reasons why we can’t all do what she does. While it may be possible for someone from Sweden or Germany to take a two-week zero-emissions boat ride to the United States, that’s how much vacation time some people have per year in other parts of the world. Europeans are able to take long, relaxing month-long vacations, which means traveling by land or sea is feasible without taking too much time out of a holiday. But in many other countries, we either travel by plane or don’t travel at all. For some of us, that means not getting to see our families who live thousands of miles away or simply not getting to enjoy the kind of quality of life that the average European can enjoy.
The other problem I have with flight shame is geographical. It’s easy to boast about environmentally-conscious train and bus travel when you live on a continent that’s less than half the size of some entire countries. Europeans can travel to over 40 nations that are all closer together than California and Florida are to each other. That’s a major advantage over every other continent in the world. What about residents of island nations? What are New Zealanders expected to do on with their time off, stay home? It’s unfair to shame anyone who can’t easily travel by land for spending their free time doing something they enjoy.
How much does flying really contribute to global warming?
Perhaps the biggest issue with flight shame is that it’s misguided. Like all consumer-aimed movements to help save the environment, flight shame is not getting to the root of the global warming issue: industry. Air travel makes up just 2.5% of global carbon dioxide emissions. So even if all air travel suddenly ceased, the planet would still be fucked because of the other 97.5%, which ironically includes other forms of transportation. Together with airlines, cars, trains, and marine transportation make up 14% of global carbon emissions.
The biggest piece of the pie comes from the burning of coal, natural gas, and oil. It comes from the energy consumption of big industries around the world. In addition to that, agriculture and deforestation account for almost a quarter of all emissions. That’s a total of 70% of carbon emissions that have nothing to do with air travel or transportation at all. I’m no mathematician, but if we want to do something about global warming, those are the areas to focus on.
If governments do nothing to regulate large industries from creating excessive carbon dioxide, our actions as consumers and travelers are basically irrelevant. Taking a two-week boat every time we take a vacation is not going to stop the catastrophic effects of global warming. It’s just going to make our time on this earth (while it still exists) that much more miserable. And spending our collective energy and resources fighting against each other’s individual actions purposefully ignores the bigger problem at hand.
So spare me your flight shame. I won’t be made to feel guilty for something as insignificant as traveling while major companies burn up the planet for profit and see no repercussions. Until someone develops no-emission teleportation, flying will continue to be my preferred form of transport, and I’m absolutely not ashamed of that.