Why the flight-shaming movement sweeping Europe won’t take off in the UK

Flysgskam” first gained prominence in Sweden, where holidays are longer and rail travel more affordable. 

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

This spring, my friend August, who lives in Sweden, was planning to meet me in Dublin for a holiday. I had recently moved away from his home city of Stockholm, and sent him a link to some flights, which were reasonably priced and took less than three hours. “Oh,” August said, “I don’t want to fly there. I want to take a boat.” 

Though I couldn’t recall any conversation about international travel where I didn’t assume I would fly, such discussions are now common in Sweden, where a climate-conscious movement has been picking up steam over the last couple of years. “Flysgskam”, or “flight shame”, a neologism that describes the shame we ought to feel about flying, started to gain prominence in late 2017 when various Swedish celebrities pledged to give up air travel. Since then, flygskam has generated flight-free pressure groups, popular Instagram hashtags like #jagstannarpåmarken – meaning “I stay on the ground” – and countless uncomfortable exchanges in Swedish lunchrooms about holiday plans. 

Flying is the most carbon-intensive way to travel. One return flight to Rome, for example, generates more carbon emissions than the average person in central Africa produces in a year. Airlines are responsible for two per cent of global CO2 emissions; coupled with their other emissions, like nitrogen oxides, the collective impact of air travel is even larger than it first appears. Flying is set to increase enormously in the coming years: the International Air Transport Association estimates that passenger numbers globally could double, from 4 billion in 2017 to 8.2 billion by 2037. 

In the UK, the actions of environmental groups like Extinction Rebellion have shone a spotlight on the ethics of air travel. But in Sweden, public discussions about air travel aren’t just talk. Passenger numbers at Swedish airports have decreased by 4 per cent this year. A survey by the World Wildlife Foundation found that in 2018, almost a quarter of Swedes reduced their air travel for climate-related reasons. Sweden introduced a modest per-flight tax in 2018, but pressure is growing for more taxes, particularly on jet fuel.

“Flygskam” refers specifically to the social guilt about flying, but the verb “to shame” is a little misleading. Maria Wolrath-Söderg, an academic who has researched Swedes’s motivations for ceasing flying, tells me the reasons behind the psychology have more to do with “conscience” – which “seems to be a driving force”. In any case, as my friend August reminds me, Swedes are too polite for outright shaming – “flygskam” is more subtle. “If someone says ‘I’m going to Thailand’, the first reaction will be like ‘Oh really? Are you?’” he says.

According to a survey by Greener UK and the Climate Coalition, some 70 per cent of people in the UK now want to see urgent action on climate change. For now, though, this hasn’t extended to taking fewer flights.  Sweden’s “Flight Free” movement now has a UK arm led by campaigner Anna Hughes, but take up has been limited. Most individuals I spoke to for this article who have given up flying say their decision has been met with bemusement. “I get the same response as ten years ago when I said I was vegetarian and friends said they couldn't do it,” said Louie Dane, a civil servant who stopped flying for leisure this year.

There are social and historic explanations for why flight shaming has taken off in Sweden. First, Swedes have a greater awareness of climate issues – it’s no accident that Greta Thunberg hails from the northern European country. Less than 1 per cent of household waste is sent to landfill, and recycling is a national pastime.

It’s also common in Sweden to take several weeks of summer holiday in a row, a tradition that dates back to the turn of the twentieth century, when the country’s powerful trade unions negotiated a summertime period of “industrisemester” or “industry holiday” that is still alive and well today (Stockholm in July is a ghost town). This means that Swedes taking a long train journey instead of a flight can still enjoy a substantial period of holiday.

And rail travel is much more affordable in Sweden than in the UK. Though Swedes complain about the government-owned train operator SJ, the service is enviable compared to the UK’s rail network. A train ticket bought six weeks in advance from Glasgow to London starts at £140. Stockholm to Malmö, an equivalent distance, costs £50. Swedes also have more money to put towards travel, with the IMF putting Sweden’s purchasing power per person at almost $10,000 (£8,100) higher than the UK, and almost every worker in Sweden is entitled to additional pay on top of their usual salary while on holiday.

These factors converge to make a staycation in Sweden more attractive than its British counterpart. The culture of staying put on holiday also has a long history in Sweden: more than half the population has access to a summer house to retreat to for weeks at a time. In Britain, however, we seem to be doing everything possible to discourage staycations, with ever-diminishing public funds allocated to recreational spaces like parks, libraries, sports facilities and museums.

It wasn’t always so. In early twentieth-century Britain, a common assumption was that increased leisure time for the working classes was an inevitable outcome of progress – the eight-hour working day has its roots in a movement that called for “eight hours for work, eight hours for rest and eight hours for what you will” (the “what you will” referring to a period of unproductive but all-important leisure time).

Our reluctance to give up flying reflects how our relationship to leisure has changed. The UK has some of the longest working hours in Europe; we’re encouraged to overwork for inadequate pay, before reaching total exhaustion and rewarding ourselves with the precious respite of a week abroad. We look forward to holidays all year – they’re loaded with expectations, in a way they wouldn’t be if we had more leisure time. It’s worth noting that Swedes work some of the shortest hours in Europe, with many people leaving the office at about 3:30pm during the summer.

In the UK, we don’t get enough holiday days to languor for weeks stretching at a time, and our trains are extortionate – an easyJet flight to Benidorm is routinely cheaper than a return ticket to Bournemouth. The average person in the UK doesn’t make enough money to regularly forgo cheap air travel to get some sunshine one week a year: London to Malaga by train and bus, not including a hotel en route, starts at £250. The flights start at £27.

Though we should all be taking reasonable measures to avoid flying and recognising the existential threat that climate change poses, those who should really feel “flygskam” aren’t the people taking annual holidays abroad. The greatest carbon footprint offenders are business travellers and frequent flyers: 70 per cent of UK flights are made by only 15 per cent of the population. 

What would it take to make people fly less? Anna Hughes admits that grassroots action – while important – isn’t going to cut it. “It will take government and industry influence”, she tells me. The Committee on Climate Change, an independent UK body, last week urged the government to introduce a “frequent flyer levy”. Elsewhere, arguments in favour of a four-day week would reduce each workers’ carbon footprint by an estimated 30 per cent – and give people more leisure time throughout the year.

Rethinking the way we take our holiday, too, might be a way forward. “You could have a year off… do your grand tour, and then work and not travel so much,” suggests Susanna Elfors, a sustainable travel expert. It’s not impossible to make individual changes, although it will require us to think more radically about the climate emergency, Maja Rosén of the Swedish “Flight Free” movement tells me. “If it was a world war, we wouldn’t be discussing where to go on vacation, we would be doing anything to be safe,” she says.

As individuals, though, we can only do so much. Responsibility needs to fall squarely on the doorstep of the airline industry and the government. Even for those with the best intentions, the obstacles sometimes prove too great. August didn’t take the boat to Dublin, because it would have taken four days and cost more than he could afford. “I do still feel like, well: [flying is] my best option,” he admits, “because it's such a hassle to do anything else.”