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The battle between convenience and conservation While climate activists try to save the planet, they’re also trying to figure out the cleanest, greenest way to navigate the globe — and it’s far more complicated than just booking a flight online. Recent research, coupled with a media frenzy over flying, has brought the battle between convenience and conservation to a head. It’s not a new problem, but if the past few weeks are any indication, neither flying nor its corresponding shame are going anywhere anytime soon.
Most of the recent attention on travel plans has been focused on teen climate idol Greta Thunberg, famous for inciting school walkouts across the world to protest inaction on climate change. In August, she opted out of flying across the Atlantic to attend the United Nation’s climate action summit on September 23rd. It was the hot environmental event of the season, and many of the climate movement’s biggest names were there. But taking the roughly eight-hour flight from her hometown of Stockholm, Sweden to the summit in New York City would have made her responsible for about a half ton of planet-heating carbon emissions.
So instead, Thunberg embarked on a two-week journey by sea on a yacht running solely on solar and hydro-power. Her trip accomplished more than getting her where she needed to be; it called attention to a growing movement of climate activists shunning aviation. Even still, Thunberg took some heat because some crew members flew into New York in order to take the boat back to Europe. In the words of Kermit the Frog, it’s not easy being green.
Calls to follow Thunberg’s lead and find ways around flying have heightened
Actions like Greta’s, which look for alternatives to flight, help raise awareness of the emissions issue, but the problem has been known about for years. The UN has hosted climate conferences each year for more than two decades. There’s another one planned for December in Santiago, Chile. And each time one rolls around there’s some finger-pointing over all the emissions they generate. More than 40,000 people from around the world descended upon negotiations in Paris in 2015, leading to the landmark global commitment to keep the planet from warming beyond 2 degrees Celsius. Since then, calls for delegates to find ways around flying to those events have heightened.
Let’s have a massive campaign for delegates NOT to fly in. They should come like @GretaThunberg does: by boat, or by train, etc. – or not at all (and in the latter case they should drop in by video-conference).Who’s with me? Pse RT! https://t.co/P5lHseaWoi— Rupert Read (@GreenRupertRead) August 9, 2019
Adding to the international pressure, this week also marked the convening of the International Civil Aviation Organization, a United Nations specialized agency. “Discussions in ICAO on boosting climate ambitions have been stuck in neutral for years — Greta’s presence could inject much needed urgency to the debate,” Andrew Murphy, aviation manager at the Brussels-based campaign group Transport & Environment, told Reuters.
Aviation currently accounts for around 2 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions, and that percentage is expected to grow. International air traffic and fuel consumption could triple by 2045 compared to 2015 numbers, according to the ICAO. And a report by the nonprofit International Council on Clean Transportation found that emissions could be climbing even faster than the United Nations projections. Already, the report found aviation emissions have increased by 32 percent over the past five years. It also found that 83 percent of aviation emissions are caused by passenger flights.
Aviation currently accounts for around 2 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions
This is the driving cause behind the rise of “flight-shaming,” or “flygskam” in Swedish. The term originated in Sweden and blew up on social media this year as grassroots activists and world leaders have sought to connect with each other to build a global movement.
Some initiatives are already in the works. Maja Rosén decided to disavow flying 11 years ago. For a long time, she mostly kept that personal commitment to herself, Rosén tells The Verge. “I felt that, you know, I don’t want to destroy the mood,” Rosén says. “But I often went home wondering why am I more scared of destroying the mood than a climate collapse? And so in the end, I sort of had enough of that.” Last year she launched a campaign in Sweden that she works on full-time now called “We Stay on the Ground,” which urges others to pledge not to fly in 2020.
In an effort to get more buy-in and hold people accountable for following through, the pledge only officially kicks in if 100,000 people from each pledger’s country signs on. “So many people feel that ‘It doesn’t matter what I do as an individual. Everyone else will keep flying,’” Rosén says. Those concerns echo a larger debate over whether the fate of the planet depends on the power of individual actions or on the remaking of policies and societal structures. “We won’t be able to get those political instruments needed if we don’t get enough people to start to act.”
Does the planet’s fate depend on individual actions or on the remaking of societal structures?
Others worry that all this emphasis on flights — just like plastic straws before them — results in individuals becoming scapegoats for the fossil fuel industry. Natalie Jones, a PhD student in international law at Cambridge University and a staff writer at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, has attended the past six annual United Nations conferences on climate change and believes calls to ban delegates from flying are dangerous. “I do worry that this whole conversation is also a distraction because the more we talk about the relative merits of individual action versus more systemic and political action, the more we aren’t talking about the questions that are maybe more important.” She adds that the burden of flight shame could disproportionately affect delegates coming from some areas of Latin America, Africa, or other regions who might have to travel further to reach epicenters for international talks like the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.
Others believe there’s a balance to be found. Options like video-conferencing could make participating in meetings more affordable for a lot of people, if they’ve got the bandwidth to join in. “I think it is okay for people to start reflecting on their impact. But we need to figure out how to turn that shame into action,” says Heidi Roop, an affiliate assistant professor at the University of Washington and the lead scientist for science communication with the university’s Climate Impacts Group. “It’s one thing to feel ashamed, it’s another thing to take that energy and channel it to calling your airline of choice or calling your member of Congress.”
“It’s one thing to feel ashamed, it’s another thing to take that energy and channel it”
And while quitting flying cold turkey may make some difference, it might not necessarily be the most impactful lifestyle change one can make. “It’s one of many things we should be looking at,” says Robert Howarth, professor of ecology and environmental biology at Cornell University. Along with Roop and 12 other scholars, he signed onto a call for academics to reduce their travel emissions published in Inside Higher Ed. He also drives an electric car and says his home is retrofitted to be carbon neutral. Looking at what are the biggest contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions, Howarth says, “What we do in our homes and our [personal] vehicles is far more important. But the symbolism of what we do with flying is important and I think increasingly people are paying attention to that.”