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Is It Fair To Shame Frequent Flyers For Their Environmental Impact? Is It Even Based On An Accurate Understanding Of Science?


TOPSHOT-SWEDEN-GRETA-THUNBERG-MOTHER

Greta Thunberg, 16, chastised the world last month for failing to halt climate change. Her mother, Swedish opera singer Malena Ernman, was a prominent signer of the 2017 public letter that launched the fast-growing "Flight Shaming" trend. (MALIN

TT NEWS AGENCY/AFP via Getty Images

There’s a growing campaign to embarrass frequent flyers, to make them feel so guilty about their environmentally callous travel choices that they will cut back or completely stop their flying to help save the planet. The Swedes, an admitted trend-loving people who kicked off the trend in the summer of 2017, have a name for it: flygskam, which gets translated as “Flight Shaming” in English.

Don’t laugh. It’s having a noticeable impact on air travel in Sweden, naturally, but also throughout western Europe, where the gospel of climate change has taken on religion-like significance and devotion. And now it has jumped the pond and is beginning to show up in some Americans’ attitudes toward air travel.

UBS, the Swiss bank, reported recently that a survey of 6,000 people from the United States, Germany, France and the United Kingdom revealed that 21% – that’s 1,260 of them – said they already had cut back on the number of flights they took in the previous 12 months because of their growing concerns about what aviation emissions are doing to the environment.

How big of a deal is that?

Well, it’s not close to being a cataclysmic decline in global air traffic. But it is big enough to be of concern to the industry and economists. And potentially it is enough to cut almost in half the current growth in demand for air travel in the U.S. and Europe.

Were that decline in the growth of demand to remain constant it would rake around $6 billion of additional revenue off the top of U.S. airlines’ total revenue in 2020 alone. And that would result in fewer new jobs added to the airline and related tourism and travel industries, fewer planes ordered from Boeing and Airbus, fewer nights spent by travelers in hotel rooms, fewer meals bought in restaurants and so on. The total annual economic impact of such a reduction the U.S. alone is difficult to calculate, but clearly it would create a noticeable reduction in economic growth.

Longer term, UBS’s research suggests that in Europe alone the number of air passengers will increase at a rate of only about 1.5% annually through 2035 because the growth of the flight shaming movement. That’s a sharp drop from the 4.5% annual growth rates that both Boeing and Airbus have been predicting without adjusting for any flight shaming impact.

So the question must be asked: are such reductions in air travel justifiable on an environmental basis?

Part of the answer depends on where one lives or works. Western Europe has very highly developed rail and ferry networks that make it both possible and reasonable for many travelers, especially those not squeezed by urgent time demands, to choose alternate, slower methods of travel. In the U.S. that’s simply not possible for most people. Outside the densely populated Northeast, where Amtrak provides reasonable options for travel between a few big urban centers, scheduled rail and bus routes simply aren’t viable alternatives for 99% of travelers. And the long distances between big cities and the enormous costs associated with building the new high-speed rail networks that would be needed to provide competitive choices mean that this country likely never will have a well-developed, nationwide, high-speed passenger rail network.

Beyond that unique set of geographic and economic limitations, there’s reason to question whether air travel is really that bad for the environment, at least relative to other forms of transportation. And if it’s not, then the whole idea of flygskam is just a trendy, feel good sham.

Let’s look at the data.

The amount of carbon emissions produced by commercial aviation typically is put at 2% to 3% of total emissions and about 12% of total transport emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency says that in the United States all forms of transportation are responsible for about 29% of total carbon emissions, making transportation the biggest source of those emissions overall. Now simple math tells us that 12% of 29% equals just under 3.5%. So, if we go by the EPA’s numbers for the U.S. alone, commercial aviation produces a bit more of the total emissions in this country than in other parts of the world, on average. That makes sense, given the geographic challenges of travel in this physically large nation, which also happens to be the world’s most complex and largest economy and has the most well-developed domestic air transportation network.

So, on the surface it looks like flying is worse for the environment than other modes of transportation, even if the geography and economic needs of this nation leave us with few or no good options to flying other than simply staying home.

But is it, really?

There is little meaningful difference between the pounds of carbon dioxide produced by the burning of a gallon of jet fuel or aviation gas vs. that produced by burning a gallon of gasoline or diesel. A gallon of jet fuel produces about 21.1 pounds of CO2 and av gas produces about 18.4 pounds of CO2 per gallon. Gasoline burned in the average car engine produces 19.6 pounds of CO2 per gallon. That’s pretty much a wash. But when you compare the passenger miles traveled per gallon of jet fuel or av gas burned vs. the passenger miles traveled per gallon of gasoline burned in a car the scale tips wildly in favor of air travel being the more efficient mode in terms of CO2 emissions.

In 2015 University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute’s Michael Sivak published findings that rather convincingly argue that flying commercially is more environmentally friendly than driving, which in the United States is by far the most common alternative to flying (other than simply staying home). His argument comes down to mass travel vs. individual travel.

Inter-city car trips involve 1.38 people per trip, on average. That’s one driver per trip accompanied, on average, by one passenger on every third such trip. Meanwhile, the average load factor on airplanes today is around 85%. So, given an average flight capacity of around 175 seats, that means there are almost 150 passengers aboard the average flight today in the U.S.

Armed with that understanding, Sivak calculated the average energy intensity of both modes of transportation. He discovered that driving is about twice as energy intensive as flying. In short, the large volume of passengers and huge number of passenger miles traveled on planes makes them more efficient, and less polluting than cars when both modes are used to make the same trip.

Of course, the counter to Sivak’s argument is that most people contemplating a long trip by air or by car would opt to not travel at all if the option of air travel were taken away. In short, the mere availability of air travel actually promotes more CO2 emissions because there would be lots less travel if air travel wasn’t an available option.

Thus, ultimately, the efficacy, and even the morality of flight shaming comes down to a question of values. For those whose values system places fighting or stopping climate change at the pinnacle, not flying or reducing their amount of flying whenever possible is likely to be the preferred answer. For those who place making positive contributions to the national and global economies and the advancement of roughly half the world’s population from poverty to middle class status, limiting flying would almost qualify as an economic sin.

The rest of us who place neither position at the top of our values hierarchy will have to evaluate the economic and environmental consequences of every single trip we take within the broader, far more complex context of our lives.

And that’s not a bad thing. At least we will be thinking beyond our own immediate needs and wants.

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There’s a growing campaign to embarrass frequent flyers, to make them feel so guilty about their environmentally callous travel choices that they will cut back or completely stop their flying to help save the planet. The Swedes, an admitted trend-loving people who kicked off the trend in the summer of 2017, have a name for it: flygskam, which gets translated as “Flight Shaming” in English.

Don’t laugh. It’s having a noticeable impact on air travel in Sweden, naturally, but also throughout western Europe, where the gospel of climate change has taken on religion-like significance and devotion. And now it has jumped the pond and is beginning to show up in some Americans’ attitudes toward air travel.

UBS, the Swiss bank, reported recently that a survey of 6,000 people from the United States, Germany, France and the United Kingdom revealed that 21% – that’s 1,260 of them – said they already had cut back on the number of flights they took in the previous 12 months because of their growing concerns about what aviation emissions are doing to the environment.

How big of a deal is that?

Well, it’s not close to being a cataclysmic decline in global air traffic. But it is big enough to be of concern to the industry and economists. And potentially it is enough to cut almost in half the current growth in demand for air travel in the U.S. and Europe.

Were that decline in the growth of demand to remain constant it would rake around $6 billion of additional revenue off the top of U.S. airlines’ total revenue in 2020 alone. And that would result in fewer new jobs added to the airline and related tourism and travel industries, fewer planes ordered from Boeing and Airbus, fewer nights spent by travelers in hotel rooms, fewer meals bought in restaurants and so on. The total annual economic impact of such a reduction the U.S. alone is difficult to calculate, but clearly it would create a noticeable reduction in economic growth.

Longer term, UBS’s research suggests that in Europe alone the number of air passengers will increase at a rate of only about 1.5% annually through 2035 because the growth of the flight shaming movement. That’s a sharp drop from the 4.5% annual growth rates that both Boeing and Airbus have been predicting without adjusting for any flight shaming impact.

So the question must be asked: are such reductions in air travel justifiable on an environmental basis?

Part of the answer depends on where one lives or works. Western Europe has very highly developed rail and ferry networks that make it both possible and reasonable for many travelers, especially those not squeezed by urgent time demands, to choose alternate, slower methods of travel. In the U.S. that’s simply not possible for most people. Outside the densely populated Northeast, where Amtrak provides reasonable options for travel between a few big urban centers, scheduled rail and bus routes simply aren’t viable alternatives for 99% of travelers. And the long distances between big cities and the enormous costs associated with building the new high-speed rail networks that would be needed to provide competitive choices mean that this country likely never will have a well-developed, nationwide, high-speed passenger rail network.

Beyond that unique set of geographic and economic limitations, there’s reason to question whether air travel is really that bad for the environment, at least relative to other forms of transportation. And if it’s not, then the whole idea of flygskam is just a trendy, feel good sham.

Let’s look at the data.

The amount of carbon emissions produced by commercial aviation typically is put at 2% to 3% of total emissions and about 12% of total transport emissions. The Environmental Protection Agency says that in the United States all forms of transportation are responsible for about 29% of total carbon emissions, making transportation the biggest source of those emissions overall. Now simple math tells us that 12% of 29% equals just under 3.5%. So, if we go by the EPA’s numbers for the U.S. alone, commercial aviation produces a bit more of the total emissions in this country than in other parts of the world, on average. That makes sense, given the geographic challenges of travel in this physically large nation, which also happens to be the world’s most complex and largest economy and has the most well-developed domestic air transportation network.

So, on the surface it looks like flying is worse for the environment than other modes of transportation, even if the geography and economic needs of this nation leave us with few or no good options to flying other than simply staying home.

But is it, really?

There is little meaningful difference between the pounds of carbon dioxide produced by the burning of a gallon of jet fuel or aviation gas vs. that produced by burning a gallon of gasoline or diesel. A gallon of jet fuel produces about 21.1 pounds of CO2 and av gas produces about 18.4 pounds of CO2 per gallon. Gasoline burned in the average car engine produces 19.6 pounds of CO2 per gallon. That’s pretty much a wash. But when you compare the passenger miles traveled per gallon of jet fuel or av gas burned vs. the passenger miles traveled per gallon of gasoline burned in a car the scale tips wildly in favor of air travel being the more efficient mode in terms of CO2 emissions.

In 2015 University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute’s Michael Sivak published findings that rather convincingly argue that flying commercially is more environmentally friendly than driving, which in the United States is by far the most common alternative to flying (other than simply staying home). His argument comes down to mass travel vs. individual travel.

Inter-city car trips involve 1.38 people per trip, on average. That’s one driver per trip accompanied, on average, by one passenger on every third such trip. Meanwhile, the average load factor on airplanes today is around 85%. So, given an average flight capacity of around 175 seats, that means there are almost 150 passengers aboard the average flight today in the U.S.

Armed with that understanding, Sivak calculated the average energy intensity of both modes of transportation. He discovered that driving is about twice as energy intensive as flying. In short, the large volume of passengers and huge number of passenger miles traveled on planes makes them more efficient, and less polluting than cars when both modes are used to make the same trip.

Of course, the counter to Sivak’s argument is that most people contemplating a long trip by air or by car would opt to not travel at all if the option of air travel were taken away. In short, the mere availability of air travel actually promotes more CO2 emissions because there would be lots less travel if air travel wasn’t an available option.

Thus, ultimately, the efficacy, and even the morality of flight shaming comes down to a question of values. For those whose values system places fighting or stopping climate change at the pinnacle, not flying or reducing their amount of flying whenever possible is likely to be the preferred answer. For those who place making positive contributions to the national and global economies and the advancement of roughly half the world’s population from poverty to middle class status, limiting flying would almost qualify as an economic sin.

The rest of us who place neither position at the top of our values hierarchy will have to evaluate the economic and environmental consequences of every single trip we take within the broader, far more complex context of our lives.

And that’s not a bad thing. At least we will be thinking beyond our own immediate needs and wants.


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