The National Post with Stephanie Whitney 20 December 2019
People around the world are ditching planes and hopping on trains to reduce their carbon footprints and the negative effects that frequent airplane use can have on the environment — all thanks to the new trends of “flight shaming” and “train bragging”.
The movement first started in Sweden under the name flygskam — which loosely translates to “flight shame” — when a group of notable public figures, including athletes and opera singer Malena Ernman, mother of 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg, announced that they were no longer going to use airplanes to travel.
Thunberg began to highlight flygskam when she sailed across the Atlantic from England to New York — a 15-day-long trip — and documented the entire journey on social media.
According to The Guardian, air travel accounts for about two to three per cent of annual carbon emissions globally. A flight from Toronto to Vancouver could release almost 500 kilograms of CO2 into the atmosphere per passenger on board.
Though the word “shame” is present in its title, organizers of the movement say the goal isn’t to guilt and shame people out of their flights, but to inform them of the heavy environmental impact and possibly find alternatives.
In Sweden, more and more people are turning to trains as their main form of transportation. Comparatively, a train ride produces up to 90 per cent less carbon emissions for a cross-Canadian trip.
Calling the new trend tagskryt, or “train bragging”, Business Insider reports that a popular Facebook page promoting the movement skyrocketed from to 170,000 since April of this year.
“Before it was all about posting pics on Facebook from Thailand, but now that could bring ‘flight shame’ and it’s more about train-bragging now,” Susanna Elfors, the group’s founder, told Business Insider.
But when it comes to Canada, asking people to limit their flying for other methods of transportation comes with a lot of challenges. Developed European countries like Sweden could more easily switch a flight to a neighbouring country with a train ride or a longer drive.
According to Stephanie Whitney, Associate Director of the Viessmann Centre for Engagement and Research in Sustainability at Wilfrid Laurier University, Canada just doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to create a more seamless transition away from air travel.
“I don’t think the Canadian infrastructure at this time supports this kind of modal shift,” Whitney said. “It would be great for us to get there, but I don’t know politically what that would take, and perhaps we don’t have the population.”
While she agrees that reducing air travel can significantly reduce an individual’s carbon emissions, it’s not an option for everyone — like those who travel to visit loved ones, or who can’t afford to take extended trips or spend significantly more on transportation. She said she knows people who can’t reduce their flights, but take other measures to reduce their carbon footprint, like buying local produce and limiting or completely eliminating their car use.
“Depending on your socio-economic status, you have different options,” Whitney said. “Is it right for you to provide blanket requests of people to behave in a certain way? Ideally, we could do these things. Morally, can you really ask everybody to make the same tradeoff?”
Catherine Abreu, executive director at Climate Action Network Canada, said that while most of the actions needed to fight climate change should happen at the organization-level, reducing your flying time is one of the most significant steps an individual can take to reduce their annual carbon emissions.
“Generally, air travel drastically dwarfs the carbon emissions resulting from any other activity in someone’s life,” Abreu said. She also mentioned that while a lot of the conversation is centred around commercial flights, a significant portion of emissions come from cargo planes, which transport goods over long distances.
And the movement is definitely making waves. According to Bloomberg, Sweden had its weakest year in terms of airplane passenger growth in the last decade, and a WWF survey found that 23 per cent of Swedes had reduced their air travel due to climate change concerns in 2018.
Internationally, a survey of 6,000 people from the U.S., United Kingdom, Germany, and France commissioned by the Swedish bank UBS found that about one-fifth of respondents have reduced the amount of flights they take in a year. The bank concludes that the change will reduce the total growth numbers of some major airlines, and possibly limit the amount of new planes ordered by those companies in the future.
Stephanie Whitney is the associate director of the Viessmann Centre for Engagement and Research in Sustainability at Wilfrid Laurier University.