While many of us happily go car-free, buy second hand or reduce our meat consumption as a way to lessen our environmental footprint, giving up flying is something that seems like a hard sell. We’ve spent our entire adult lives living in a world where jetting off to exotic destinations has been a cheap and convenient possibility, and the affordability of flying is a modern perk of life treasured by many. Until recently, the impossibly low fares offered by airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet (€12.99 for a trip from Berlin to Spain!) made it hard to resist a long-weekend escape to the beaches of Mallorca. But as a certain 16-year-old Swedish activist recently reminded us, flying just happens to be one of the most climate-damaging things we can do. Not only have Greta Thunberg and her Fridays for Future movement helped put climate change back in the news and on the political agenda; her very public decision not to fly – but rather take the train and sail around the world – has also given rise to the concept of Flygskam, Flugscham in German, the feeling of guilt over flying, given its planetary consequences.
Flying – not just about CO2
“The problem with flying is two-fold,” explains Stefan Gössling, a German-born professor in sustainable tourism at Lund University in Sweden. “The first problem is the amount of fuel you’re burning in a very short period of time.” All that fuel translates into CO2, and according to the European Environment Agency, 285 grams of CO2 are pumped out per passenger per flight kilometre, compared to just 14 grams when taking the train. But the problems go far beyond the bare amount of CO2 released. “With flying, you also have non-CO2 emissions like nitrous oxide and water that have additional warming effects,” stresses Gössling. For most flights, these extra effects dwarf the warming caused by the CO2 emissions themselves. According to the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, to get a true idea of a flight’s climate impact, a “warming effect” of at least 2.7 tonnes should also be added for each tonne of CO2 a flight emits. When you include these additional effects, the impacts of flying really start to become clear. Stats from Berlin-based carbon offsetting non-profit Atmosfair show that a round-trip flight between Berlin Tegel and Bangkok burns enough jet fuel to emit 1736kg of CO2 per economy passenger – already a significant amount. But when you take into account the other warming effects, the true CO2 emissions equivalent would be a massive 5102kg, an amount three times the average annual emissions of someone living in India. Meanwhile, a shorter round-trip to Mallorca would still churn out a significant 602kg of CO2 equivalent. But what are we to do when our love (or need) to travel collides with our desire to do the right thing?
Offset your guilt
One option that does exist is to ‘offset’ your carbon emissions – a service offered by a spate of mainly non-profits, whose guilt-redeeming activities have been booming in recent years. Among them is the German market leader Atmosfair, a Berlin-based company founded in 2005 following a research project between the German Ministry of the Environment, tour operator association Forum Anders Reisen and the environmental development organisation Germanwatch. Headquartered in Kreuzberg, the 39-employee-strong donation-funded organisation offers guilty travellers a way to make amends for their harmful flying habits with targeted donations. Once on their website, you’re invited to enter your flight destination and type of seat, and they’ll tell you the amount of carbon emissions you’re responsible for, how much it will take to offset them and offer to donate the calculated amount to a selection of organisations that will use this money to fund projects that aim to decrease carbon emissions somewhere from Rwanda to Nepal. For example, a round-trip between Berlin and NYC will have a climate impact of 3774kg CO2, which you’ll be offered to offset with a donation of €87 to a list of charities, like an initiative providing solar electricity to rural villages in Ethiopia, so that its residents no longer need to burn kerosene lanterns for light in the evenings. An important consideration is that not all offsetting organisations, or donations, are made equal. Unlike many, Atmosfair includes the “additional warming” effects caused by flying in their calculations. For example, Switzerland-based Myclimate (which also works with Lufthansa) would only charge €49 to offset the same Berlin-NYC trip.
Highlighting its sustainability credentials, Atmosfair reported receiving €9.5 million in compensation payments for flights in 2018, up 40 percent on the previous year, pointing to a rapidly expanding market of environment-conscious flyers – a fact that hasn’t escaped air industry leaders pressed to show consideration and boost their image. Many airlines have long given customers the option to carbon offset their trips, and British Airways even committed to carbon-neutrality on their domestic flights. But recently even the guiltiest among the guilty – low-cost airlines – jumped on the Flugscham bandwagon: last November easyJet took the lead by announcing they’d become the world’s first carbon-neutral airline, with a plan to offset emissions on all of their flights. The company said it would do this by investing in accredited carbon-offsetting schemes, such as renewable energy or tree-planting projects. But the price they’ve identified for this – roughly €3.5 per tonne of CO2 – is suspiciously low. And of course they don’t include the additional warming effects of flying. “This is no less than greenwashing, a case of airlines being stuck between a rock and a hard place and not having any solutions,” says Gössling, referring to the special responsibility of low-budget carriers in increasing CO2 emissions, and their impossible attempt to compensate (or cash in?) for the very damage they create and which, so far, their business relies on.
The problem with offsetting
Beyond money provenance, critics see offsets as problematic in many ways. Firstly, it is almost impossible to ensure that the promised amount of carbon emissions really was offset. Providing solar panels for rural villagers without electricity is arguably a good thing regardless of the CO2-positive impacts, but there’s no way to know if their installation truly did prevent the promised amount of CO2 from being released to the air, or if there were unaccounted-for ‘rebound effects’. For example, if rural villagers have more energy, there’s a chance they might consume more than before and buy more products than they otherwise would have. Not a bad thing in terms of the world’s equality, but it could very easily mean that the CO2 emissions aren’t offset. Secondly, some point to offsetting as a rich-people solution, its generalisation ultimately posing a threat to the amazing democratisation of travelling thanks to flights affordable to all – the extra €80 for a trip to NYC might be out of reach for families on a budget. Lastly, and more fundamentally, offsetting could just be counter-productive in that it might spare the wealthy in the developed world – who are actually responsible for the bulk of climate-damaging emissions – the behavioural changes required for a better planet. Even Atmosfair stresses that offsetting is really only a second-best solution after reducing or avoiding unnecessary travel, and urges prospective clients on its website to do that first. In short, offsetting can only go hand in hand with a conscious effort to reduce travel.
Johanna Niemi (36) is a social researcher who lives in Helsinki but has called Berlin home twice in the past decade. Even though she’s moved away, Berlin retains a soft spot in her heart and she has always made a point of visiting the city every summer. Until recently, her visits usually involved a short and affordable two-hour flight. But, as she learned more about the impacts of flying, the consequences of those mile-high trips started to weigh on her. “I started to hear a lot of news and research about how unsustainable flying is for the planet, and I started to feel really guilty,” she remembers. Given her love of travel, Niemi first made herself a compromise: she would cut down her flying to once a year. But then last spring, impelled by the responsibility she felt to her two daughters, she decided that for the foreseeable future, she would forgo flying altogether. In practical terms, this meant that when she decided to visit Berlin last summer, instead of a quick flight over the Baltic Sea, Niemi and her daughters undertook an epic three-day journey. “We took trains and boats, and then more trains,” she says. First up, there was the ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm, then a train from Stockholm to Malmö, and then another ferry. Two or three more train connections later and they arrived at Hauptbahnhof, weary but happy. “I think my daughters had fun,” she recounts. “I explained my motivations for travelling this way, and I think they understood and saw it as an adventure.” However, the decision not to fly has come with costs, both literal and figurative. The trip to Berlin with her daughters set her back €800, much more than the equivalent flights would have cost. It has also meant that her days of short vacations around Europe are, for the time being, over, while visiting her best friend in Ireland is now almost impossible. But it’s a compromise she’s willing to make. “The map looks different now, because you have to think about how you’ll get there,” she explains. “Now I have to travel slow, and I can’t travel as often. I only go away once or twice a year but for longer periods of time.”
Gössling has also drastically cut down on his flying. “I still occasionally take a business trip when it’s unavoidable, but I essentially stopped leisure travel by plane 25 years ago, when I first started working on the issue of air travel and realised how bad it is.” One primary reason that keeps preventing people from approaching plane travel in a more reasonable manner is the exceedingly low price of flying. “A lot of evidence shows that people fly more because it’s cheap, not because they need to go places.” Because of this, Gössling would like to see a “quite significant carbon tax, like €100 per tonne of carbon equivalent”, so that people really start reconsidering whether they need to fly, or could just use a more sustainable way to travel. Meanwhile, airlines actually benefit from a slew of regulatory advantages that help make it cheaper than greener transportation means, like the train. For example, while Deutsche Bahn has to pay tax on the electricity it uses, there is no tax on kerosene, the fuel that powers planes, and for international flights, there is also no VAT. In 2020, some new measures addressing this imbalance are supposed to come into force – taxes for individual flights are set to increase from €3 to €17 depending on their length, while VAT on Deutsche Bahn ICE and IC travel is set to be reduced in 2020 from 19 to 7 percent. But as long as travelling by train remains so difficult and so exorbitantly more expensive than flying, neither offsetting nor guilt will ever be enough to see users change their ways. A recent research survey on the explosion of the Flugscham in Germany showed that “some people will at least consider flying less, but overall it has had a minor effect so far,” admits Gössling.
For players like airlines, the long term solution to the current conundrum is to be found in new technologies. EasyJet is already working with Airbus and Wright Electric on the development of hybrid and all-electric planes and, as summarised by its CEO Johan Lundgren, “Offsetting is only an interim measure until other technologies become available to radically reduce the carbon emissions of flying.”
One of the most promising solutions Gössling sees is that of synthetic, carbon-neutral fuels. Created by machines that capture carbon dioxide from the air, this captured CO2 is then chemically manipulated using electricity and steam to make what’s called ‘Syngas’. This gas is then further processed to create synthetic fuels that are chemically identical to the jet fuel used in today’s planes. A new pilot project at Rotterdam Airport aims to produce 1000 litres of synthetic fuel a day in this manner, powered completely by solar energy. The project is a tiny symbolic step, but it is illustrative of a technological development that could eventually help pave a path to sustainability. But while technically possible, the economics aren’t yet in place to make synthetic fuels financially competitive against fossil-based jet fuel. So, to help get it going, Gössling argues that governments “should require airlines to use a small but growing share of synthetic fuels in their operations”.
Another solution being pioneered by sustainable aviation company ZeroAvia aims to create zero-emission flights by transforming existing combustion planes into aircrafts with electric drivetrains powered by compressed hydrogen and fuel cells. Out of their operations at Cranfield Airport, north of London, the company has a six-seater plane fitted with their system – a vehicle they claim is currently the largest zero-emissions plane in the world. By the end of 2022, they aim to create (in tandem with airplane manufacturers) a 10- to 20-seat aircraft capable of flying up to 800 kilometres. But it’s early days in the world of sustainable flying, and no matter what emerges as the winning solution, it will still optimistically be years or decades before solutions for climate-friendly air travel are deployed on a large scale. So, until technology catches up, flying will be hard to do with a completely clean conscience. In the meantime, while we can’t all be Greta, we can all work towards reducing or avoiding our unnecessary flying. Maybe we can enjoy the benefits of some slow travel, and a bit of extra leg-room at the same time.
FLYING BY THE NUMBERS
11 tonnes yearly climate footprint of an average German
1.6 tonnes yearly climate footprint of an average person in India
5.1 tonnes average CO2 (and equivalent) emissions for a one passenger round-trip from Berlin to Bangkok
1.1 billion number of people that travelled by air in the EU in 2018 (6 percent increase from 2017
30,000 average number of unique flights either departing from or arriving at a European destination each day
31.1 million amount of flights in the world in 2018 (up by 1.7 million from 2017)
285 grams of CO2 released per passenger per kilometre when flying
14 grams of CO2 released per passenger per kilometre by train
100 percentage of Deutsche Bahn long-distance passenger trips entirely powered by green energy