It’s a very 21st Century dilemma, particularly for those with family overseas, that icky feeling of catching a long-haul flight with the knowledge that flying is one of the worst things we can do for the environment.
But even as Australians become more engaged in climate action, with more than 100,000 taking part in this month’s schools strikes, is it possible to stay grounded in a country built on migration?
Air travel is one of the fastest-growing sources of carbon emissions globally, with the industry now accounting for about five per cent of the world’s total carbon emissions, and counting.
In the next two decades, according to the International Air Transport Association, aeroplane passenger numbers are expected to double.
In response, a movement emerged in Sweden at the end of last year called #flygskam – or flying shame – which has spurred thousands of people across Europe pledging on social media and online petitions not to fly unnecessarily, or to go a year without flying.
In Germany it’s known as #flugscham, in the Netherlands, #vliegschaamte.
One of the Swedish movement’s most vocal spokespeople is former Olympian Bjorn Ferry.
He tells SBS News the end of his sporting career coincided with the signing of the Paris climate agreement targets: “I am not this kind of environmentalist, I am actually a sportsman”.
“When I finished my sporting career, becoming carbon-free became my new mission and challenge. I found this a meaningful thing to do with my family because I think some people need to stand up now if we want a more sustainable future.”
How much is reasonable to fly?
The problem we are facing is this: scientists have warned that to keep within the two-degree global warming threshold, each person has an average allowance of around two tonnes of CO2 per year.
Yet just a return flight from Sydney to Singapore creates a warming effect equivalent to 6.2 tonnes of CO2 per person. A Melbourne to London return trip notches up 16.8 tonnes. Australians well and truly blow our carbon budget on every long-haul flight we take.
Ferry – who says newspaper articles written by him and other Swedish celebrities kicked off the #flygskam movement – says there has since been a marked decrease in internal flights within Sweden and an increase in train travel.
“Of course people still have to travel – but if people are just flying to London for the weekend because its cheap or to see a football match, I would ask ‘do you really need to do that or is it actually immoral?'”
“I think we have at least managed to change the conversation around flying in Sweden and it is now spreading around the world.”
The Swedes have even taken it one step further, with anonymous Instagram account Aningslösa Influencers naming and shaming social media influencers travelling the country, and the world, by plane – measuring the CO2 produced on each trip.
It currently has more than 61,000 followers.
The hashtag #smygflyg (flying in secret) is also seen on Swedish social media accounts, while it’s commonplace for others to brag when they opt to take a long train journey.
Is it impacting Australians?
For Merle Dietz and Steven Wesley, a German-Australian couple who met in Berlin and now live together in a multiple occupancy community in SE Queensland, regular flying is hard to avoid because of their family connections across the globe.
But back in 2010, when the impacts of flying on climate change were first coming to the attention of the public, the couple attempted to travel across the world without flying.
They started their nine-month journey from Germany to Australia by train, before catching the ferry to Latvia, taking a bus to Estonia and then on to Russia. The Trans-Siberian railway took them to Korea and Japan, then they went by ferry to China. They caught buses through Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Malaysia, before getting a ferry to Bali.
And they almost made it.
“We wanted to travel from Berlin to Melbourne,” says Ms Dietz. “But because I had a partnership visa we didn’t have as much time as we wanted and we ended up taking a two-hour flight from Bali to Darwin.”
She says the trip took more than nine months but was surprisingly inexpensive. “We thought it would be a great adventure to travel that way, but we were also concerned about the impacts of climate change from flying.”
“I think we are already at the point where flying can’t be justified and we really should have stopped it a long time ago. I mean, if we only have 12 years to reduce emissions by 1.5 per cent and otherwise it will be all too late, that’s not a very long time.”
For Ruchira Talukdar, a Melbourne-based PhD student studying environmental movements in Australia and India, flying at least twice a year is a necessity to visit her family in Kolkata and to undertake her studies. She says she is aware of how unsustainable flying is, but it is something she can’t avoid.
“I don’t want to be overburdened by guilt. I try to instead focus on the things I can do; I don’t have a car, I use my bicycle in Melbourne where I live, and I take the train … also I take the train in India,” she says.
“I am aware of that movement [flying shame] but I think there are many areas of our lives that we can investigate … right now I have to fly, which is a shame, but I have to do my work which inspires me as well. So it is a conundrum. But I don’t know if shaming is the way to go.”
Will the movement change behaviours?
According to Leigh Barnes, chief purpose officer for travel company Intrepid Group, Australians are definitely more conscious today of how they travel and some are looking for alternatives.
“But as flying is such a big part of the Australian lifestyle I don’t think we’ve seen the same level of flying shame taking hold here as it is in Europe,” he says.
“Yes, people know that flights are a big contributor to carbon emissions and we know the travel sector is growing – tourism now equates to around one in ten jobs globally. As the sector grows I think we are still seeing companies being a bit slow in reacting to the carbon impact it creates.”
Barnes adds that Intrepid has been carbon offsetting all of its flights for a long time.
“We are currently looking at taking this further and going carbon negative in the next couple of years – finding more ways of carbon production so we can become carbon positive in our travel,” he says.
But according to Magdalena Heuwieser, co-organiser of Stay Grounded, a global network to counter aviation growth and combat climate change with over 100 member organisations, carbon offsetting won’t sufficiently cut emissions at the levels required.
“Sorry to say, but the pretty new idea that is being promoted by the industry to offset emissions and have therefore carbon-neutral flights is an illusion. It doesn’t work,” she says.
“The emissions are in the air at the moment of the flight, and they cannot be taken out – it cannot be compensated directly,” she says.
“In order to stop heating the planet, there is no other pathway than to reduce emissions at the source: that is, not to burn that much fuels, in the case of aviation.”
According to Olympian Ferry, making the change to resisting or minimising flying really just calls for a new way of thinking about the problem.
“In Sweden, we say ‘people are more afraid of the medicine than the disease’. We are more afraid of the change in lifestyle to stop flying than of climate change itself.”
“We all know we will have to stop using fossil fuels anyway. So I just think it’s rational to do it now while we can, without disrupting the whole of society.”