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How The Flying Shame Movement Got Off The Ground


All right. Listen up folks. We're about to talk about flygskam. That's right. You heard it - flygskam. It's the Swedish word for the shame some travelers feel about flying because of all the greenhouse gases flying emits. This summer, there's been a lot of shaming around flying, like, for instance, the outcry over Google's exclusive gathering in Sicily when all these A-list guests flew in on more than 100 private jets to discuss, of all topics, climate change. And then Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan are getting some heat for jet-setting around Europe on Elton John's private plane. Umair Irfan wrote a piece about flying shame for Vox, and he's here with us now to talk about it.

Welcome back.

UMAIR IRFAN: Thanks, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So you wrote about how this flying shame movement got off the ground a few years ago in Sweden of all places because of a Winter Olympian there. What's that story?

IRFAN: Yeah. This was a Swedish biathlete named Bjorn Ferry, and he announced publicly a few years ago that he was going to give up doing press junkets and traveling around the country. Being a Winter Olympian, he is very in tune with nature and particularly winter and was deeply concerned that warming was going to harm the future of his sport. And he decided to lead by example by trying to mitigate his own emissions.

CHANG: Wow. OK. And then there was another Swede, a Swedish teenager environmentalist, Greta Thunberg, who had made this big splash, and now she's actually crossing the Atlantic by sailboat to attend a U.N. climate summit in New York. But then that trip generated controversy. Why?

IRFAN: The controversy around that is that, well, one, people think it's a stunt and that it's dangerous to put a 16-year-old girl on a trans-Atlantic journey. She is accompanied by her father and skilled sailors. But the other part is that also some of the crew that's going to be relieving the crew on the way back is flying to New York. And so that kind of seems to negate the whole point of this to begin with.

CHANG: Right.

IRFAN: Then the trip organizers are saying that they're going to buy offsets for that trip, and so they still think it's going to be carbon neutral, but observers from the outside, both cynical and some genuine environmentalists, are concerned that, you know, there still will be a detrimental environmental impact.

CHANG: I see. OK. Well, speaking of carbon offsets, I heard that Elton John let it be known on Twitter that he's actually already offset Prince Harry and Meghan's carbon emissions by contributing to an environmental group. How legit is that, buying carbon offsets? I mean, what do you get for your money?

IRFAN: It's a growing mechanism. It's a financial instrument that essentially takes whatever you emit and compensates for it, whether that's through planting a tree or building a renewable energy project or helping other people around the world lower their own carbon emissions.


IRFAN: But not all offsets are equally good. One analyst I spoke to said that about three-quarters of carbon offsets don't deliver the reductions that they say they do. But that means a quarter of them still do, so it matters what kind of offset you pick. It matters how good and transparent they are. You want to make sure that whatever you contribute is causing an additional change, not doing something that was already going to happen. There are people all over the world that are planting trees and installing solar panels, so giving them money doesn't really move the needle. You want to find somebody that wasn't going to do something until you gave them that money. And that little bit of accounting is pretty tricky, and it's tough to thread that needle to make sure that you are actually making a meaningful difference.

CHANG: OK. So other than just not getting on a plane or buying carbon offsets, are there other things people can do to try to lower their carbon footprint when they do fly?

IRFAN: One thing you can do is to look for more direct routes. When you make stopovers, you end up burning more fuel because aircraft have to burn a significant amount of fuel just to get off the ground.

CHANG: But direct routes are more expensive.

IRFAN: That's - yes, they are. And that's also part of the tradeoff you have to make.

CHANG: Right.

IRFAN: The other thing is also you can try to minimize your use of short-haul flights. The flights that are shorter than, say, about 500 miles or so tend to have a higher carbon footprint per passenger for the distance for the same reason, that because the airplane has to burn a significant amount of fuel just to get off the ground. On a short-haul flight, up to a quarter of the fuel is just used in the takeoff and climb.

CHANG: So just take the train or the bus instead in those situations.

IRFAN: Train, bus or avoid or, you know, have the Skype meeting instead.

CHANG: (Laughter) That's Umair Irfan. He covers climate change and the environment for Vox.

Thanks so much for coming in today.

IRFAN: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.