(Image: Getty/bortonia)

Have you heard about flygskam? It’s the hottest new thing out of Scandinavia. And it’s here to make you feel extremely bad. Flygskam is a Swedish word that translates to “flight-shame”. It describes the feeling of being aware of the environmental damage caused by plane travel.

This is something we all know these days: plane travel is unquestionably terrible in terms of its carbon emissions. A few hours in seat 32F create more kilograms of carbon than heating your house or driving your car would create in months.

I calculated the carbon intensity of a recent trip I took to Indonesia, and it was disappointingly high. Two of us flew from Melbourne to Denpasar, round trip. Total emissions were, according to the official ICAO calculator, 1000kg of carbon. A tonne. 

The tropical holiday was delightful, but we would have emitted 10% less carbon had we driven to Cairns and back — a journey of 6000km. 

Do we really have an alternative?

In Sweden, the concept of flygskam is being used to coax and coerce people out of flying. Which is fine, because the Swedes can catch ferries and trains as they spread out across Europe on their summer vacations.

But here? In Australia? Can we handle flygskam? There’s no train track that can get us out of our country. Surface travel from Sweden to France — the world’s favourite tourism destination — is a matter of 13 hours. From Australia it’s at least a month, probably on a cargo ship. 

Our multicultural society — made up of many migrants — means family reunions require a passport and a plane ticket. We have no practical alternative to flying, other than staying home and loading up Skype. That lack of options can be seen in the official statistics. Our attachment to flying will take a lot of flygskam to displace. We’ve more than doubled our overseas trips in the last 12 years.

Source: ABS overseas arrivals and departures, May 2019

That’s not to mention the inbound trips by foreign visitors, which have increased by two thirds over the same period. Tourism is now one of our major exports, accounting for 10% of export earnings, and growing very rapidly as the Aussie dollar slides. 

The carbon emissions of Australia’s domestic aviation are also shooting skyward.

Low carbon flying

Working prototypes of electric aeroplanes have been in existence for several years now. Electric-powered aviation could help reduce carbon emissions, so long as the electricity generation is low in emissions. But nobody thinks electric planes are close to taking over commercial air routes.

Battery technology is still too heavy. That is holding back dozens of fields, but none more completely than aviation. The explosive power of jet fuel in jet engines is very hard to replace (jet engines are, by the way, extremely efficient) and liquid fuel has a side-benefit: as the fuel is used, the aircraft gets lighter.

While some airlines talk up the chance of electric planes, big commercial jets have very long lives and the industry is extremely risk averse. Expecting rapid change in the world of aviation is a recipe for disappointment. 

What’s more likely is airlines will work out ways to continue to trim their carbon intensity slightly, using offsets and even flying slower to save on fuel.

What’s the point of shame?

Shame can be useful for obtaining better social outcomes. It’s a way of raising the cost of doing something in order to stop people from doing it. But if we use a different system, we can get a better outcome. Yes, I’m talking about a carbon price. A price on carbon would have the same effect as attempting to shame people for flying — it will discourage some people from doing so. 

The downside of flygskam — of shame — is that when you pay the price, you feel bad but nobody benefits. When you pay a carbon price, by contrast, a benefit is transferred. If you pay $30 to offset a tonne of carbon, that $30 is collected by the agency in charge of the carbon price. And they can use it productively to obtain carbon offsets. 

A financial transfer is a more socially beneficial system than shame. Plus, it’s easy to dial up and down. If you haven’t prevented as much travel as you want, you simply haven’t set the price high enough.

Yes, we are surely able to trim our flying somewhat — some already are — but until e-planes are whining their way through our skies, it’s realistic to expect the best way for Australia to reduce our net aviation emissions is by using a carbon price to buy offsets. 

Do you think flygskam has a place in Australia? Send your comments to [email protected]. Please include your full name.