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How dare you fly?: on the recent anti-flying movement triggered by Greta Thunberg

As a fiery Greta Thunberg called out world leaders on their actions impacting the environment — at the recently-concluded Climate Action Summit at the UN headquarters in New York — she birthed a new movement well before she arrived: flight shaming.

Having chosen to sail to the event rather than take a flight, the 16-year-old has got everyone thinking about how leaders headlining such global events get there. Reportedly, it has also led to an anti-flying movement — flight shame, or flygskam in Swedish — resulting in a decline in Swedish passengers travelling by air and opting instead for low-carbon alternatives such as rail and electric-powered road travel.

Don’t follow the leader

Worldwide, flights produced 895 million tonnes of CO2 in 2018. In stark comparison, humans globally produced about 42 billion tonnes of CO2 (atag.org). And as per an analysis from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the number of air travellers could double to 8.2 billion in 2037.

Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist, waves after sailing in New York harbor aboard the Malizia II in August 2019.
| Photo Credit: Mary Altaffer

An interesting report by travel site fromAtoB.com analysed 259 international flights taken by 15 world leaders (based on countries that were willing to share data) who attended this year’s G20 Summit in Osaka, Japan. Ranking leaders based on their travel footprint, it found that US President Donald Trump had the second-largest carbon travel footprint of the G20 leaders in 2018. It was found that his aircraft, a Boeing 747-200B, emitted the most CO2 per kilometre at 88 kg/km. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Boeing 777-300 emitted 51 kg/km.

When combined, all 15 leaders emitted a whopping 96,530.6 tonnes of CO2 last year, and this doesn’t include the internal flights taken in their home countries.

Green aviation

But will the movement gain momentum and lead to cuts in flights? Perhaps not. The aviation industry plays a huge role in the delivery of aid and medical facilities to disaster-struck regions, in the delivery of fresh produce, it cuts down significant travel time, and it supports employment. Over 65 million jobs are supported worldwide in aviation and related tourism. Of this, 10.2 million people work directly in the industry (atag.org).

What the industry could do is opt for bio-fuels wherever possible, optimise current operations, and look at cutting down the total number of flights. Bio-fuel-derived sources such as algae, jatropha, or waste by-products have been shown to reduce the carbon footprint of aviation fuel by up to 80% over a full lifecycle (atag.org).

For the haters

For those still pointing fingers at Thunberg, mocking her tone and mannerisms (she has Asperger syndrome, and believes her ‘neurodiversity’ has enabled her to see climate change with a different lens), and the fact that she could be a ‘puppet’ or a ‘scripted gimmick’, I suggest you learn a thing or two instead from the many issues she’s highlighted in the last month alone: something our governments have ignored over decades.

As for debating whether it is all scripted, if it is, we are all the losers here.

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