It’s a flying shame: Work travel in the age of #flygskam

2019 has been a bracing year for those of us working on aviation and the environment. In the wake of Greta Thunberg’s activism, the flygskam (“flying shame”) campaign begun in Sweden has been spreading across Europe, hinting for the first time that aviation growth could be checked by environmental concerns. Increasing scrutiny of the climate impact of flying has caused some to wonder about how much of their travel is justified, and others to prioritize local trips by train over long-haul flights.

As someone who’s been working on this issue for more than a decade, I’m pleased to see this new awareness. According to the most recent figures released by IATA, scheduled flights emitted more than 900 million tonnes (Mt) of carbon dioxide (CO2) in 2018, more than the German economy and a 27% increase over the past five years alone. CO2 emissions from aircraft are on track to roughly triple by 2050, at which time aviation may account for a quarter of global CO2 emissions if other sectors hew to the Paris goals. New, more fuel-efficient aircraft, sustainable alternative jet fuels, and better data so that fliers choose less carbon-intensive carriers will be crucial to lowering the impact of flying. But in the 60+ years of the jet age, technology gains have yet to fully offset demand growth.

In a way, my aviation origin story aligns well with the flygskam movement. The main reason I started ICCT’s aviation program a decade ago was the realization that flying dominates my own carbon footprint. I fly a lot for work, mostly as a technical observer to two UN agencies, ICAO and IMO, that set international environmental standards for planes and ships. I’ve long been a reluctant traveler, with the bulk of my personal travel being so-called “love miles” to meet family every year or so. With one of my daughter’s grandmothers living 2200 kilometers away in Iowa, and the other almost 9000 kilometers away in Japan, the environmental consequences of living far from loved ones are pretty clear. But, at least every other year, my family’s summer vacation involves a flight to someplace beautiful but far away.

I did a personal carbon inventory highlighting the impact of my travel for 2014 (here, with full methodology). This #flygskam moment spurred me to go through the exercise again with my 2018 travel, consider how things are going, what lessons I’ve learned since 2014, and what I could do better.

The chart below shows my estimate of CO2 emissions from my direct energy use last year, with light blue bars corresponding to personal emissions and the red bar showing my work air travel.

2018 CO2 emissions from direct energy use
Figure 1: 2018 CO2 emissions from direct energy use

In 2018, my personal energy use (household, commute, and personal flights) accounted for about 3 tonnes of CO2. That’s not terrible compared to the global average of about 5 tonnes per person, and certainly not to the American average of about 17 tonnes. (Note here that I’ve only tallied emissions from direct energy use. My total emissions, taking into account indirect emissions due to consumption of consumer goods like food and also my share of the embodied energy of infrastructure, buildings, etc. would be somewhat higher). This low figure is due to my sharing a modest (about 80 m3) apartment with my family, living in temperate California with its fairly clean electric grid, driving relatively little and then in a hybrid car, and having access to decent public transportation.

Transportation continues to dominate my direct carbon footprint. The largest single driver of my personal CO2 emissions, 1.3 tonnes, was my thrice-weekly, 130 km round trip to the office by diesel commuter train. (I count my commuting carbon as personal, rather than work, because I choose where I live.) This figure, thankfully, should drop considerably when Caltrain joins the 20th century and finally electrifies its trains. About one-quarter of my direct CO2 climate footprint came from the outbound leg of a trip I took last December to visit extended family in Japan. My 2018 personal jet fuel use was about 330 L, which is comparable to the US per capita average.

Work travel is a different story, unfortunately. The 100,000 kilometers I flew in economy class for work to cover UN environmental meetings at ICAO and IMO generated about 10 tonnes of CO2 last year, about 10% lower than 2014 but still unacceptably high. Overall, flying accounted for three-quarters of my total (personal plus work travel) climate footprint. My total aviation jet fuel use clocked in at around 4200 L, or almost 15 times the US average. This marks me as one of the frequent fliers that contribute heavily to aviation emissions. As a point of reference, data from the UK suggests that 15% of the British population takes 70% of that country’s flights.

Flying as a driver of my carbon footprint is even clearer when you consider how I used energy over time in 2018 (figure). When I’m at home my direct energy use generates about 6 kg CO2 per day, but that increases 75-fold every day I fly. There’s no denying that flying is the most environmentally damaging thing I do in any given year.

Cumulate 2018 CO2 emissions from direct energy by month
Figure 2: Cumulative 2018 CO2 emissions from direct energy use by month

I should note that I did a lot last year to limit my aviation emissions. I fly in economy class, direct, and whenever possible in fuel-efficient aircraft. I’ve gotten adept at trip chaining – marrying ICAO and IMO meetings to outreach to policymakers in Europe and Asia – and tack on extra weeks away from home to avoid extra flights. Videoconferencing lets me connect to staff in our other offices, and I say no to just about every conference I’m invited to. The latter impacts networking opportunities, but this seems like a reasonable sacrifice to make, given the stakes. I do not offset emissions from my travel. Opinions differ here, but I feel I’m more likely to avoid marginal-value trips if I don’t have the excuse of paying someone else to reduce emissions for me.

Still, this is a lot of flying. In my defense, I fly overwhelmingly to attend UN environmental meetings to develop policies to reduce GHG emissions from planes and ships. ICCT’s research and engagement at ICAO and IMO meetings translates directly into policies to limit GHG emissions from international transport. Earlier this year, a wise man and ICCT alum compared the idea of environmental activists giving up flying to the idea of police surrendering their weapons before criminals do. There’s a ring of truth to this – one less ticket bought by me to these meetings means one less voice there for international climate action – but given the depth and speed of the climate crisis that’s a rationale I don’t want to get too comfortable with.

#flygskam isn’t going away, so here’s to further efforts – personal, organizational, and societal – to avoid unnecessary travel. And to redoubling our efforts to decarbonize the flights that we do take.