SALT LAKE CITY — If you'll be traveling with your family this summer, Swedish opera singer Malena Ernman prefers that you not fly.
Ernman is one of a growing number of Swedes who have stopped traveling by air because they're worried about aviation's effect on the environment, and she is urging others to do so as well, using the newly coined word “flygskam,” which means "flight shame," and the hashtag #stayontheground.
Flight shame is internal — it's the sense of being embarrassed or ashamed of flying because you are environmentally "woke." It's not related to passenger shaming, the social-media trend of posting pictures of fellow flyers doing things you don't like.
The "flygskam" campaign has yet to affect commercial aviation in the U.S., where air travel hit an all-time high in 2018, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
But with air travel down 8 percent in Sweden this year, and the anti-flying campaign spreading to other countries, airlines are paying attention.
Flight shame was a hot topic at a recent airline conference in Seoul, Reuters News Service reported. Alexandre de Juniac, head of the International Air Transport Association, warned CEOs gathered at the event: "Unchallenged, this sentiment will grow and spread," and he later told reporters to "stop calling us polluters."
Already, the European Aviation Safety Agency has announced that it is developing a plan to give airplanes a grade based on carbon emissions and other forms of pollution.
For summer travelers needing to make a long trip in a short time, there are few modes of transportation that don’t negatively affect the environment. Horse-drawn carriages are no longer readily available, and manure-filled streets were once a serious problem for cities. Even proponents of hot-air ballooning are on the defensive these days because of the propane balloons use.
Some analysts, skeptical that flying deserves so much hate, are examining the true costs of different modes of transportation. Here's what they've found, and why "flygskam" may remain a European trend.
The no-fly zone
The Swedish opera singer promoting flight shame is the mother of Greta Thunberg, a teen climate activist who was featured on the cover of Time magazine in May.
Thunberg, who is 16, was inspired by the activism of the survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, and began a weekly school strike, skipping school every Friday, in order to draw attention to the problem of carbon emissions.
"I believe that once we start behaving as if we were in an existential crisis, then we can avoid a climate and ecological breakdown. But the opportunity to do so will not last for long. We have to start today," she has said.
Others promoting flight shame in Europe include Bjorn Ferry, a prominent sports commentator, who said last year that he would only cover events if he could get there by train, the U.K. newspaper The Guardian reported.
In their arguments against flight, Thunberg and others cite reports that say aviation could be the biggest emitter of carbon dioxide within three decades, as the carbon footprint of cars declines.
"While direct emissions from aviation account for just 3 percent of the European Union's total greenhouse gas emissions, it’s also true that on a measure of C02 emitted each kilometer traveled by a passenger, air travel is the most polluting means of transportation with 285 grams of C02 per passenger/kilometer," Davide Banis wrote for Forbes.
And Danny Westneat, a columnist for the Seattle Times, puts it even more starkly: "In terms of carbon emissions that lead to global warming, there’s probably nothing worse we can do on an individual basis than take an intercontinental flight."
The solution, for Thunberg and others, is to take the train, which is powered by electricity. This has led to yet another new Swedish word, "tagskryt," or "train bragging."
People are posting pictures and tips on social media about train travel, and train operators are taking advantage by billing trains as "climate-smart travel."
When Thunberg spent 65 hours on a train recently to travel to Davos, Switzerland, where she spoke at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting, the forum's website reported that the train emitted just 44 kilograms of carbon, compared to 262 kilograms if she had traveled by plane.
Challenges for families
Of course, the flight's carbon dioxide output was the same, even if the plane took off with one less passenger, so to make an impact, large numbers of people would have to stop flying. And some families are saying they don't find this feasible.
"My toddler doesn’t sit still for long, and how many snacks would I need to pack for that length of journey?" Helen Hamston, a mother of four in the U.K., told Jo Thornhill, writing for The Guardian.
"Changing trains would be like a military operation, and when everyone is tired and hungry it just doesn’t sound like much fun. At least a flight is over more quickly," Hamston said.
And Carlton Reid, reporting for Forbes, took a 28-hour train trip from Newcastle, England, to Stockholm and wasn't a fan.
"The 2,190-kilometer journey was split over seven connections, took 28 hours, and cost £260 (about $330). Flying with cheap airlines and booking in advance, I could have flown for half the price," Reid wrote.
And even factoring in time spent getting to airports, going through security and waiting to board, flying would have taken 18 fewer hours than taking the train, he said.
That said, flying with young children can be challenging, too, and long uninterrupted stretches of time on trains offers time to play a board game or create art, especially if you are able to get seats with a table, according to the travel website The Points Guy.
What about cars?
Two years ago, Salon reported that it's better to take a short-distance flight than to drive the same distance by car.
"The car emits 0.38lb of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while a short-haul flight emits just 0.2lb CO2 (per km or 0.6 miles, per person)," Reynard Loki wrote.
The cleanest way to travel, Loki said, is by bicycle, followed by electric car, rail and ferry. (Although this was before recent reports about how mining for lithium and copper for electric-car batteries is destroying desert habitats.)
If you're short a ferry and don't have time to wait for the electric minivan that Mercedes plans to produce, a plain, old-fashioned car that uses gasoline may not be as bad as it used to be.
The same report that predicts aviation to be the biggest carbon offender in the future notes that gasoline consumption was slightly down in 2018 even though carbon emissions rose more than 3 percent, according to Vox. The reduction was just a fraction, but still significant because we traveled more miles, and it can be attributed to improved fuel economy, as well as more electric cars on the road.
Average fuel economy for cars produced in 2017 hit a record high of just under 25 miles to the gallon, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's Automotive Trends Report.
In addition, "the average estimated real-world CO2 emission rate for all new vehicles fell by 3 grams per mile (g/mi) to 357 g/mi, the lowest level ever measured," the report said.75 comments on this story
The travel blogger René de Lambert predicts that "flyskam's" influence won't reach the U.S. because our rail system isn't as good as Europe's. Also, de Lambert wrote, "This country really just is too big to not fly where you want to go."
Of course, the easiest way to reduce your family's carbon footprint from travel is to stay closer to home, which is what the Swedish president of the organization "We Stay on the Ground" advocates.
Speaking to Outside magazine, Maja Rosén said, "I think it’s important to change this norm that you have to go far to have a good life."