If someone had told me a year ago that global air traffic would be halved in 2020, I would have jumped for joy. During the past few years, I’ve spent all my time campaigning for people to stay on the ground. This has now become a reality – but for the wrong reason. The Corona pandemic isn’t something to be happy about. And people not flying for a few months won’t save the climate.
But it is great to see that quick and radical change is possible. The pandemic has shown us that politicians can make uncomfortable decisions, and that people are prepared to make big sacrifices.
So why haven’t we done the same for the climate?
In the past couple of years, I’ve talked about the climate crisis with lots of people, and one of the most important things I’ve learned is that most people don’t know how severe the situation is. Although many are worried, few people have realised that the next decade is crucial. If we don’t halve global emissions in this time, we risk reaching the point of no return.
It’s not surprising that so few people have accepted this fact. Despite all the warnings, the world keeps on spinning. Our politicians continue to ignore the science and, in the media, news about the climate sits next to articles about cheap holiday flights. And when everyone else continues to live their lives as usual, it can’t be that bad, can it?
The thing about human nature is that we are greatly affected by each other. The reason that so many of us continue to fly on holiday even though we’re in a climate emergency is not because we don’t care, but because we are human. We are more influenced by others’ behaviour than gloomy climate predictions, so if everyone around us continues to fly, then so do we. And when we hear facts that go against our values and lifestyles, we become defensive, and find arguments to continue living as usual.
And there are so many good arguments to keep flying. Aviation plays an important role in our globalised society. It smoothly takes us across the globe, enables meetings with people from all over the world, and brings different cultures together. And besides, it’s so much fun. Shouldn’t we deal with all the things that are worse instead? After all, aviation accounts for just a few percent of global emissions.
But the reason that aviation emissions aren’t higher is because very few people in are privileged enough to fly. It’s been estimated that over 80 percent of the world’s population has never been on a plane. For those who fly, air travel is often the single largest source of emissions. Just one holiday flight can use up your entire annual carbon budget and more. For example, we Swedes love to travel to Thailand. A return trip there emits three tons of greenhouse gases. This leaves no room for the things we can’t live without, like food, and a home. If all the people in the world took a similar flight once a year, total global emissions would rise by over 40 percent, when we desperately need to reduce them.
In other words, the only reason that emissions from flying aren’t higher is that there is so much inequality in the world. If everyone could afford to fly on holiday, we wouldn’t stand a chance of solving the climate emergency. An even worse injustice is that it’s the people who haven’t contributed to the climate crisis who are already suffering from its consequences. It is them, not us, who are forced to flee their homes or see their children starve.
The problem is that we can’t directly see the consequences of our emissions. If someone told you that your emissions would directly lead to the death of another person, no one would choose to fly. But the fact is that our combined emissions will lead to the death of a large number of people, and jeopardise our entire existence on this planet.
This can be hard to get your head around. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, and to feel that your own actions don’t make a difference. What does it matter what I do? I’m just a small person in a really big world. If we are to succeed in solving the climate crisis, we need political solutions, right?
Of course, we do. But we’ve been waiting for these solutions for decades, and we are still waiting. If we are to succeed in changing the system, more of us need to demand change, and in order for that to happen, more of us need to realise that the climate emergency really is an emergency.
Talking is not enough. If people are going to listen and take in what we’re saying, we also need to act, and lead by example. Choosing to stop flying, which is something that many people might see as a great sacrifice, is a very effective way to get more people to wake up and realise the severity of the situation. The same applies to the reverse scenario. If you continue to fly, you signal to people around you that everything is under control and that they can calmly continue to ignore that we’re in a climate emergency.
Giving up flying is one of the most important things you as an individual can do to reduce your emissions. But the biggest effect lies in how this decision impacts others. By showing that you are prepared to do what it takes, and that you believe your actions matter, more will follow.
Are you still not convinced? I’m sure that many of you listening right now are thinking that “ok, giving up flying may be a good idea, but I’m just not prepared to make that sacrifice”. I’ve spoken to many people who feel this way. Now imagine that everyone you know – your friends, your colleagues, your family – imagine that they all told you that they have decided to give up flying until we’ve sold the climate crisis. How would you react? When I ask people this question most of them say that “well, in that case I guess I would be prepared to do so”.
Our tendency to act like those around us has a great advantage: if enough people take action, change can happen fast.
A couple of years ago, some public figures here in Sweden said that they had decided to give up flying for the sake of the climate. Since then, more and more people have followed their example. The norm has started to shift. And it’s made a difference. From having steadily increased for many years, the number of flights fell by 4 percent in Sweden last year and domestic flights fell by a full 9 percent. This has in turn contributed to a flying debate in many other countries, and people all around the world rethinking their air travel. In a survey conducted by the European Investment Bank, 75 percent of Europeans, 69 percent of Americans and a full 94 percent of Chinese people claimed they intended to fly less during 2020. The head of the International Air Transport Association has even described flight shame as the biggest threat to the aviation industry.
The term flight shame is misleading though. It’s not shame that drives people to give up flying for climate reasons, just as it isn’t shame that makes us do so to reduce the spread of the Corona virus. It is care for each other and the only planet we’ve got. And the reason we encourage others to stay on the ground is not to make them feel ashamed. It’s in everyone’s interest to save the climate and I’m convinced that most people would happily sacrifice their holiday flights if they fully realised what is at stake.
Of course, we can’t just stop flying – we need to do much more than that if we are to solve the climate emergency. But we definitely won’t succeed if we continue to fly.
We need to ask ourselves what we want to say to our children in the future. That we did everything in our power to save them? Or that since we didn’t know if we would succeed, we didn’t even bother to try?
I believe that the Corona pandemic will make us better equipped for the changes we inevitably need to make for the sake of the climate. I believe that it will make us realise that we cannot take our world for granted and also realise what is truly important in life. It’s not the cancelled holiday flights that people are suffering from right now, it’s the lack of social contacts, not being able to spend time with the people we love, and a limited freedom. The transformation needed to solve the climate emergency will be mild in comparison. We can save the climate – we can create a better world – and continue to do the things that really matter at the same time.
Of course we would fight for the climate if enough people realised that this crisis is also a matter of life or death. What the world needs now is to replace the Corona pandemic with a “climate awareness pandemic”. You can help spread it by staying on the ground.