I have a case of a new illness. I didn’t have a word for my condition until a few weeks ago. No easy cure exists, and the best course of treatment is abstinence. The symptoms? A slight flushing, averted eyes, self-conscious guilt, and deep feelings of embarrassment. The cause? Concern about the environmental impacts from too much flying.
The Swedish have a word for this illness, flygskam, which translates as “flight shame.” The illness has become an epidemic in Sweden. Its spread can be traced back to Swedish schoolgirl and climate activist Greta Thunberg who refused to fly on her recent speaking tour of Europe due to the carbon emissions from aircraft. Swedes are beginning to fly less—#stayontheground. A bevy of articles on the idea are championed by Swedish Olympic athlete Bjorn Ferry. Flight shame is creating a movement.
The Swedes weren’t the first. A colleague of mine decided to cut down dramatically on flying in 2007, a relative has done the same for 15 years, and some climate scientists gave up flying in 2004, with one, Dave Reay, stating that “for me, nothing in the last 15 years has justified flying.”
I am late to the game, but still, I have #flygskam because I fly a lot. I suspect talking about flying is like talking about money, something one is not supposed to do in polite company. But why not?
In the last 12 months, I flew to Cuba via Toronto for a conference of anthropologists (675 kg—technically, this should be CO2/journey, KG); to San Francisco via Toronto for another conference (767 kg); to Washington D.C. via Montreal for a conference of geographers (337 kg); to Toronto for a conference of Latin Americanists (243 kg); and to Bogotá via Toronto for fieldwork (743 kg).
If you add it all up, all these flights end up being about 2,750 kg in the last year or so. As much CO2 as I would save if I stopped driving for half a year. If I want to do my part to meet the IPCC 2030 targets, the biggest single things I can do is stop flying.
Swedes are doing just this and staying on the ground in record numbers. Train travel was up 5% last year to 31.8 m trips and is already up 8% in the first quarter of 2019. The number of domestic flights has fallen by similar amounts. The Swedish National Railway estimates that a single flight from Stockholm to Gothenburg (Sweden’s two major cities on opposites sides of the small country) generates as much carbon dioxide as 40,000 train journeys.
How does this work? Google Maps tells me the drive between Stockholm and Gothenburg is a 4 hours and 37 minutes, the train is 3 hours and 13 minutes, and the flight is 1 hour. A little online sleuthing suggests Scandinavian Airlines flies the Stockholm to Gothenburg route with a Boeing 737-600, which carries 120 passengers. If the Swedish National Railway’s estimate is correct then, one could take that trip by train 333 times before one would reach the same emissions as one seat on one flight.
The Swedes are curing their flight shame by staying on the ground.
What about in Canada? Is staying on the ground an option for us?
On its website, ViaRail lists the Toronto to Montreal drive as just over 5 hours, the train journey as 5 hours, and the flight as 1 hour 15 minutes flying time with 2 hours travel time counting security line ups, getting to the airport, and leaving the airport.
ViaRail points out the train gives a traveller more time to do work. But, are the emissions 333 times better?
The train from Toronto to Montreal takes 14.76 kg of C02, while the flight takes 83 kg. If ViaRail’s estimates are correct, then you could take the train almost six times for one flight. Sobering, but far, far less than the 333 journeys that Swedes can enjoy.
I suspect, not being an expert, that this discrepancy is because ViaRail’s trains are largely diesel powered, while trains in Sweden are largely electrified and Sweden already has one of the least carbon intensive energy systems in the world.
Staying on the ground in Canada will produce less carbon dioxide than flying, but perhaps not that much less. It might be worth the savings, but it can takes lots and lots of extra travel time. I spent an hour just trying to do the calculation, and I’m not even sure I got it right.
Driving to Miramichi (2 hours, 7 kg) and then catching the train to Toronto would take 24 hours, including a few hours stopover in Montreal. Carbon emissions would be 14.76 kg for Toronto to Montreal, 11.3 kg for Montreal to Quebec City, and then (my estimate) of 44.28 kg for Quebec City to Miramichi—in total of 77.34 kg. For flights, the International Civil Aviation Organizations has a Carbon Emissions Calculator online. Punching in Toronto to Fredericton gives a total passengers C02 of 121.6 kg, and it takes about 4 hours with travel time to the airport. While I write a lot, and I could get an awful lot of writing done on the train, it would still be a rather long trip. In part, this is because the schedule is inconvenient, and the connections badly organized. (The last time I planned to book the train, it would have required an extra two days to actually leave Toronto.) Driving is a faster alternative, but with one person it would actually produce about as much CO2 as one flight.
My first conclusion from all of this is that we desperately need alternatives to flying. We need better transportation networks, better scheduling, and better infrastructure.
If it is true that one short flight in Sweden produces the same pollution as 40,000 train journeys, while in Canada the number is more like 300, then we really need to fundamentally rethink our national transportation infrastructure from the perspective of carbon emissions.
What would it mean to electrify the rail network from the Maritimes to Southern Ontario, with all of it being regular, fast, reliable, cheap, and carbon efficient and some of it being high-speed?
The Beijing-Guangzhou/Shenzhen high-speed railway is 2,298 km long, and takes only 7 hours, 59 minutes. Rail is an essential part of China’s infrastructure development and climate strategy. Could we make the railway be cheaper, faster, and electrified across the Maritimes? Could we build a high-speed rail link through the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario corridor from Toronto to Quebec City (or Belledune and beyond)? What about electrified connector buses that meet up with those trains. What about daily over night and connections? What about giving passengers priority over freight.
A second conclusion comes from another Swedish term, lagom— meaning “just the right amount.” Travel just the right amount: not too often and not too far. The best way to cut carbon emissions is of course to not travel at all: to stay at home, to give presentations via video link, to make a phone calls, to host a local conference for local attendees, to focus on building local capacity, to vacation locally, to support local economies, and to embrace the winter.
If you have to go, a good alternative is don’t go so far and do it by staying on the ground.
It might not be so hard.
I can get to Halifax in 4 hours carpooling, or Quebec City in 6 hours on a bus, or Brunswick, Maine in 4 hours by car and then get on an AmTrak train and be in Boston in 3 more hours or New York in 8 hours or Washington DC in 11 hours. This sounds like a lot of time on travel, and yet flying—after adding an hour at each end to get to and from the airport and through security—makes it 7 hours to Boston, 7.5 hours to New York, and 8 hours to Washington D.C. In either case, it is a long day’s travel. But, at least on the train one would probably be more comfortable.
The point, all of this: travelling just enough, staying on the ground, making careful plans, taking longer to travel, slowing down, and focusing on the local are all important steps to reducing the carbon emission from travel.
The decision to not to do this is the decision to spew carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This seems increasingly untenable as France hits 45.9 Celsius and the clock is ticking towards 2030.
All of this flight shame might still not be radical enough. Consider a little flight rationing, with a cap-and-trade systems for frequent fliers, and a modest “carbon allowance” of only one flight a year for everyone. Frequent fliers like me would have to pay far more, and those who stay on the ground would have a nice incentive for staying there.
Daniel Tubb is an environmental anthropologist at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton.