Commercial flights currently make up more than 2.5% of carbon emissions – so should we ditch air travel to help save the planet?  

Forget cosy concepts like hygge and lykke – the Scandinavian term you’ll be hearing everywhere this year is flygskam. Translating literally as ‘flight shame’, it’s the Swedish anti-flying movement speedily spreading across northern Europe.   

Campaigners claim that flygskam has already prompted an 8% drop in passenger numbers at Swedish airports. Its success has also inspired a similar British movement, Flight Free UK, which aims to convince 100,000 of us to stay grounded in 2020.    

“Not everybody flies, but for those of us who do, there’s nothing else that you would do in your life that would raise your carbon footprint so quickly by so much,” says the director of Flight Free UK, Anna Hughes. “For example, we all know that driving isn’t great for the environment, but one return transatlantic flight emits more CO2 than driving your car for a whole year. And we are becoming more aware of the environmental impact of our diets, but the carbon savings you would make by going vegan would be completely wiped out by one return flight to Bangkok.” 

For those of us who like to think of ourselves as outdoor lovers, landscape connoisseurs, even adventure travellers, factoids like these make uncomfortable reading. Does saving the world really mean committing to exploring only a tiny fraction of it?   

The no-plane pioneers 

 For some in the outdoors world, giving up flying is a no-brainer. Helen Todd, campaigns and policy manager with Ramblers Scotland, has avoided recreational flights for more than 13 years.  

“I stopped flying for holidays in 2006 for environmental reasons,” she says. “To be fair, I’d travelled a lot by then including 15 years living and working in Asia, so I understand the allure of ‘abroad’. But I’ve discovered that getting to know my own country is a lifetime’s task – or joy, I should say! If you love the outdoors, the UK has so much to offer with such a variety of world class landscapes and activities all year round.” 

 It isn’t just individuals eschewing air travel – businesses are getting in on the act as well. Stuart Shipp, who organises trips to the British hills through his London-based mountaineering company City Mountaineering, relies purely on train transfers for environmental reasons. Like Helen, he argues that the UK can offer a lifetime of adventure potential.   

“I understand that people may want to test themselves at higher altitudes (I’ve done it myself), but the physical and mental challenges can easily be met on the perfectly formed mountains of our little island, which most adventure tourists have never really explored,” he says. “Why fly to far-flung destinations if you haven’t even explored the nation you call home?”   

A TGO Twitter poll suggests that many outdoors lovers agree. Of nearly 250 respondents, 73% said they would fly less frequently to reduce their environmental impact. That figure roughly echoed a YouGov poll released in September, in which two thirds agreed that we should limit our air travel to tackle climate change.    

Can individuals make a difference?  

Swearing off flying might offer a sop to your conscience – but is it really worth it if Fred Jones next door still jets to New York and back every other week? More importantly, does the emphasis on individual choices detract from the large-scale policy reform really needed? 

That’s the fear raised recently by Michael Mann, director of the Earth Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. He told the Observer that climate change deniers are shifting their focus, deflecting attention away from finding policy solutions to global warming towards promoting individual behaviour changes. That echoes concerns expressed by the controversial climate campaign movement Extinction Rebellion, which is founded on the basis that individual actions can’t address the scale of the climate crisis. Only policy changes will make a measurable dent in our emissions.   

On the other hand, there’s no doubt that the flygskam movement is having an impact. That’s partly because one individual making the choice to eschew flying can have knock-on social effects. Recent research by Steve Westlake at Cardiff University found that the commitment shown by people who don’t fly can influence others to imitate them. That, in turn, captures the notice of governments and corporations.   

To a large extent, it’s up to government and industry to put measures in place to enable us to move away from unsustainable forms of transport, but industry and government tend to go where public demand states,” says Anna. “So what we do as consumers and individuals really does make a difference. When we come together, change is possible.” 

This article is part of our latest ‘Tread Softly’ series on sustainability in the outdoor world, which is published in partnership with GP Batteries. Find out how rechargeable batteries can help cut your environmental impact (Sponsored).

Read the full Tread Softly special in the February 2020 issue of The Great Outdoors.