Before Greta Thunberg went to the UN to give her exceptional speech at the Climate Action Summit last September, she faced a conundrum. Surely she wouldn’t turn down such an impactful opportunity to spread her message. Thunberg had famously not stepped outside her native Sweden when it came to any public engagements. For instance, when the Duchess of Sussex picked her as one of 14 female forces for change for her guest editorial issue of British Vogue, the late photographer Peter Lindbergh had to travel to Sweden himself to photograph her for the cover story. When the Guardian arranged a talk between Thunberg and US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another powerful voice in the climate change arena, Thunberg joined the discussion via video conference.
The invitation to speak at the UN, however, wasn’t easily declined. So Thunberg took it upon herself to make a statement and embarked on a two-week, zero-emission journey on a 60-foot, carbon-neutral racing yacht from Sweden to New York. When asked why she did that, her answer was simple: she wanted to raise awareness about the extremely high carbon emissions that air travel produces. Too extreme, some might say, but in her defense, she felt she is one of the few people in the world who had the resources to actually travel emission-free. What accompanied this move was a global rise in the “flight-shame” movement, which had originated in Sweden two years before.
The "flygskam" (flight shame) movement and its companion "tagskryt" (train boasting) started to gain traction in Sweden in late 2017, when various Swedish celebrities pledged to give up air travel in order to save the environment. However, no other country has seen this movement take off in the same way for many reasons. First, it’s a culture thing. Sweden is ranked as one of the world’s most sustainable countries; they are ahead of the game on a lot of environmental issues like recycling and renewable energy. Not to mention the Swedes are a conforming people, so when the government changes a policy and a bunch of influencers call for greener living, the Swedes abide. Second, Sweden has a way more efficient and way less costly railway system than many other arguably equally advanced nations in Europe. So when we look at the facts, it's no wonder flight-shaming has been so effective in Sweden. If a whole nation is shunning air travel, that must mean it's pretty bad, right?
When Thunberg finally made it to New York, her main plea during her UN speech was about the absolute necessity of cutting our carbon emissions in half in order to avoid a global temperature increase of 2°C, because failure to do so diminishes our only 50 percent chance (already not the best odds) of a temperature increase that is lower than 1.5°C, which will significantly reduce the risk of setting off irreversible and catastrophic chain reactions on the planet. As of today, commercial flying is responsible for more than 2.5 percent of global carbon emissions. If serious steps aren’t taken to alleviate the problem, that percentage is only on the rise.
Maybe this seems like a low percentage, but let me put it into perspective for you: one flight – let's say a round trip from Egypt to London – emits 1.14 tonnes of CO2 per passenger; that's about the equivalent of what the average person in about 70 countries produces in an entire year. And it’s not only the carbon emissions that are harmful, planes also emit several substances that have a significant warming effect on the planet, such as nitrogen oxide and contrails. These emissions remain in the atmosphere longer than other surface transportation emissions because they are released at a higher altitude, which is why air travel is even more harmful.
via Business Insider
Not flying anymore seems like the easy answer but it's very difficult to imagine it taking off worldwide. Since 1990, there's been a 300 percent increase in air travel. We're talking about changing the habits of the entire world. Nevertheless, the aviation industry has been under duress as of late due to the also increasing public awareness of environmental issues. Alexandre de Juniac, the head of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), called the environmental challenge the biggest threat to the airline industry, at least in Europe. Richard Gustafson, chief executive of Scandinavian Airlines said, “This is an existential crisis for us. If we don’t clearly articulate a path to a sustainable aviation industry, it will be a problem.” And they have been trying, it just hasn’t been enough. Since 1990 carbon emissions from each plane traveler have been cut in half with the help of more fuel-efficient aircrafts, with plans to cut net emissions by 2050 and reach carbon-neutral growth from 2020 onwards. There have also been some eco-conscious campaigns created by airlines such as KLM Royal Dutch Airlines asking people to think twice before purchasing a plane ticket.
At the World Aviation Festival, the world’s leading aviation business and technology show held in London this past September, the who’s who of the aviation industry were gathered, while Extinction Rebellion, a global nonviolent environmental movement aiming to compel government action in order to avoid tipping points in the climate system, were leading protests right outside the event. So, naturally, the subject of sustainable air travel came up. The heads of several carriers – including Emirates, JetBlue and EasyJet – all felt that reducing carbon emissions would take years, if not decades, given the limitations of current technology and unavoidable global expansion of air travel. Electric or hybrid jets are felt to be decades away from commercial flight. Tim Clark, President of Emirates Airlines said, “The automotive industry is well ahead, but then cars don’t fly.”
So where does this leave us?
While commitments to stop flying might come easy to some nations, the rest of the world doesn’t have the luxuries of viable alternative transport options and short distances that Europe enjoys – especially if we take a closer look at our region. The options are scarce. Not only that, but we also lack the culture of sustainable living that the Swedes have. While some might strive to live a more environmentally friendly life, if we try hard enough and despite many logistical challenges to do so, there’s a lot of people who have other more pressing struggles to deal with.
For argument's sake, let's take a closer look at alternative modes of transportation within Egypt. In terms of trains, your travel options become limited to the Delta region and Luxor and Aswan, and while they're all theoretically accessible by train, the railway structure is still very lacking and it certainly isn’t always the safest or easiest way to travel. In terms of automobile travel, which is not a very environmentally friendly alternative unless you carpool or take a bus, which lowers the impact significantly, Egypt’s roads have seen improvements in the past few years and traveling by bus or car has become a more accessible option. But if we were to discuss traveling outside of Egypt without getting on a plane… *crickets*. The options are basically zero. Due to political unrest across basically all of our borders, it is currently not even an option on the horizon.
So if the aviation industry is not able to do anything to make air travel more sustainable right now, and we don't have access to alternative modes of travel, does that mean we have to stay in our corner of the world until someone comes up with the solution? No, definitely not. While we all look up to the great example that Greta Thunberg has set for us, it's still possible to be a more environmentally friendly traveler without giving up air travel completely. For one, always consider an alternative way of traveling to your destination than by plane. And while this will more likely always fail, it is an important thing to think about. Or even consider planning a trip within Egypt and try to get there without a plane. But if you do decide you need to escape, try and choose a destination that’s closer to home. The shorter the journey the lesser the emissions. It’s also less impactful if you pick a direct flight and travel economy class, which is not only easier on the ol’ wallet but also takes up less space per seat which means less carbon. Limiting your air travel to once or twice a year will also have a significant impact. If you have a business trip, ask yourself if this can’t be resolved over video conference. We might not have the technologies needed to sustainably travel by plane but we definitely have all the communication tools we need to get in touch with others. Once you arrive at your destination, use modes of travel that emit low CO2, like walking or cycling. There’s no better way to explore a destination than by literally walking through it. And finally, consider staying in lower impact accommodation and consider your energy source, energy consumption, water heating, cooking fuel, and food sources.
Being environmentally conscious doesn’t exclude flexibility. Everything you do to try to have an impact could make a difference. Sentiments worldwide are starting to want to see serious action taken to combat climate change, but it's important to remember that it's not all black and white. Stopping air travel altogether is not a realistic call to action, but maybe trying to avoid it is. If we truly want to have an impact, it starts with raising awareness and getting people from all walks of life in our region to be educated about climate change, the environment, and the different ways everyone can lead a more conscious lifestyle. One person living the most sustainable and zero-emission life imaginable alone in the world will not make a dent. But if we all do small things wherever we can to make this world breathe again, that’s where the real impact begins to happen.