People hate flight shame – but they won’t stop flying

Plane goes bye bye. Image: Getty.

Despite flying being the single fastest way to grow our individual carbon footprint, people still want to fly. Passenger numbers even grew by 3.3 per cent globally last year alone. The hype around “Flygskam” – a global movement championed by climate activist Greta Thunberg that encourages people to stop travelling by plane – seems to have attracted more media attention than actual followers.

A 2019 survey found that although people in the UK were increasingly concerned about aviation emissions – they were also more reluctant to fly less. This might reflect how flying has become normalised in society, aided by ticket prices which are on average 61 per cent cheaper in real terms than in 1998. I’m increasingly asked by peers about how they can fly “sustainably”, the “greenest” airlines, or the “best” carbon offsets to buy. People want to avoid flight shame, without avoiding flights.

The industry has reacted quickly. Websites like Skyscanner, used to compare flight options between destinations, now show customers a “greener choice” – displaying how much less C02 a certain flight emits, compared to the average for that route. These green choices are determined to be flights that use more direct routes, airlines that have newer aircraft, or can carry more passengers.

While there are cases where two airlines operating the same route can produce very different emissions, on short-haul routes, emissions differences are invariably small – usually less than 10 per cent. The greenest option would be to travel by train, which has as much as 90 per cent fewer emissions than equivalent flights. However, Skyscanner stopped showing passengers train options in 2019.

Meanwhile, popular budget airline Ryanair – whose CEO only recently admitted climate change isn’t a hoax – now claims to have the greenest fleet of air planes in Europe. The company’s modern, fuel efficient planes – alongside its ability to fill them with passengers – does make it the “greenest” air travel option out there. However, Ryanair had a total of 450 planes in operation in 2019 (compared to only 250 in 2010) – meaning that despite its fuel-efficient planes, the sheer quantity of fuel they burn is why they were named one of Europe’s top ten polluting companies in 2019.

Last year also saw carbon offset schemes become popular. These schemes allow passengers to pay extra so their airline can invest in environmental projects on their behalf – thereby making a flight theoretically “carbon-neutral”. British Airways now offsets all of its customers’ domestic UK flights, while Ryanair also has a scheme allowing passengers to buy offsets for their flights, with proceeds going to projects including a whale protection scheme – which appears completely unconnected to reducing carbon at all.

Easyjet has also started buying offsets on behalf of all its passengers – costing a total of £25m a year. This has apparently been a successful PR move, with internal research finding that passengers who were aware of the offsetting policy were more satisfied with their flight than customers who didn’t know.

Passengers might feel satisfied, but whether their offsets actually reduce carbon is less clear. Critics question the time-lag associated with offsets, especially tree-planting schemes. A plane that flies today pollutes today – but a tree planted today won’t remove carbon for years. As for “avoided deforestation” projects, which aim to protect existing trees, proving these trees wouldn’t have survived without offset funding is almost impossible.


Airlines often claim that their offsets save high levels of carbon, at a conveniently low price. For example, Easyjet only invests £3 per tonne of carbon it emits in a carbon offset scheme. But such a low-ball investment might not even be able to give these carbon offset schemes the finances needed to actually offset the effects of one tonne of carbon. For context, the EU Emissions Trading Scheme currently trades carbon at £21 a tonne, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change thinks carbon should be traded at a minimum of £105 a tonne. Newer, and more expensive offset models – which extract carbon directly from the air look promising – but are hard to scale up.

The other danger of these cheap offsets is that travellers might believe they solve the problems caused by flying – so they won’t change their travel behaviour. Indeed, one government minister even argues that there’s no need for people to fly less, because low-carbon and electric flights are around the corner. Despite reports that solar or battery-powered planes are coming to the rescue, current plane technology is going nowhere fast.

This is partly because jet fuel on international flights isn’t taxed, which leaves little financial incentive for the industry to invest in big technological shifts. Aircraft manufacturers Boeing even predicts it will produce 44,000 planes by 2038 to accommodate the 8 billion passengers flying each year by then. Those planes will look, sound and pollute much like today’s ones.

Aviation is currently forecast to account for almost a quarter of global emissions, and be the UK’s most polluting sector in 2050. And if the government’s recent bail-out of failing airline Flybe is anything to go by, aviation will continue to be let off the hook.

Carbon offsets and “greener” tweaks might only help to further rationalise the status quo, and prevent tougher policies from coming into play – such as taxing frequent flyers, or stopping airport expansions. But as climate-related natural disasters become more common, radically changing our attitude to flying will soon be unavoidable.

The Conversation

Roger Tyers, Research Fellow in Environmental Sociology, University of Southampton.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

To see how a city embraces remote work, just look to Helsinki

A deeply rooted culture of trust is crucial to the success of remote work. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

When I speak to Anssi Salminen, an account manager who lives an hour outside Helsinki, he’s working from a wooden platform on the edge of a Finnish lake. With a blanket laid out and his laptop set up, the sun low in the sky, Anssi’s remote work arrangement seems blissful. 

“I spend around half of my time working somewhere else other than the office,” he says. “I can work from home, or on the go, and I also travel to the Netherlands once a month and work from there.

“The emphasis in my work has always been that it doesn’t matter when or where I work, as long as I get things done.”

For many people around the world, the shift to remote work was sudden, sparked by the coronavirus pandemic. Finland, however, is finding the transition much less significant. Before Covid-19, the Nordic nation already displayed impressive levels of remote working, with 14.1% of its workforce reporting usually working from home. Only the Netherlands has a comparable percentage of remote workers, while the UK lagged behind at 4.7%, and the US’s remote workforce lingered at around 3.6%

Anssi works for one of many Helsinki-based companies that offers its employees flexible policies around when and where they work. That arrangement is in part due to the Finnish capital’s thriving start-up scene. In spite of being a relatively small city by global standards it is home to over 500 technology start-ups. These companies are leading the way when it comes to keeping employees connected wherever they choose to work.

“Our company has a completely location-free working policy,” says Kasper Pöyry, the CEO of Helsinki-headquartered software company Gapps. “All meetings are made available for online participants and facilitated accordingly. Some employees have worked extensively from abroad on a working holiday, whilst others prefer the comfort and social aspects of the well-stocked office. Whatever works for our employees is what works for the company.”

Like Gapps, many Helsinki-based firms are deeply preoccupied with providing the necessary technology to attract talent in a vast and sparsely populated country. Finland has only 15 inhabitants per square kilometre, and companies understand that in order to compose teams of specialised expertise, they may have to seek talent outside of the city. Local governments take a similarly proactive stance toward technological access, and Helsinki offers free, unrestricted, high-speed Wi-Fi from city-wide hotspots, while the country as a whole boasts some of the best coverage in Europe. 

But encouraging remote work isn’t just about optimising the potential of Finland’s workforce – companies in Helsinki also recognise that flexibility has clear benefits for both staff and employees. 

“The idea of a good work-life balance is ingrained in Finnish culture,” says Johannes Anttila, a consultant at organisational think tank Demos Helsinki. “It goes back to our rich history of social dialogue between labour unions and employers, but also to an interest in delineating the rules of working life and pushing towards people being able to enjoy their private life. Helsinki has been named the best city in the world for work-life balance, and I think that this underlies a lot of the mentality around remote work.” 

For Peter Seenan, the extent to which Helsinki residents value their free time and prioritise a work-life balance prompted his move to the city ten years ago. He now works for Finnair, and points to Finland’s summer cottages as an example of how important taking time to switch off is for people in the country. These rural residences, where city residents regularly uproot to enjoy the Nordic countryside, are so embedded in Finnish life that the country boasts around 1.8 million of them for its 5.5 million residents

“Flexible and remote work are very important to me because it means that I don’t feel like I’m getting stuck in a routine that I can’t control easily,” he says. “When I’m working outside of the office I’ll go down to my local sauna and go ice swimming during the working day, typically at lunchtime or mid-morning, and I’ll feel rejuvenated afterwards… In winter time especially, flexibility is important because it makes it easier to go outside during daylight hours. It’s certainly beneficial for my physical and mental health, and as a result my productivity improves.”

The relaxed attitude to working location seems to pay off – Finland is regularly named the happiest country in the world, scoring highly on measures such as how often its residents exercise and how much leisure time they enjoy. With large swathes of unspoiled countryside and a national obsession with the outdoors, sustainability is at the forefront of its inhabitants’ minds, leading to high levels of support for measures to limit commuting. In January, Finland passed a new Working Hours Act, the goal of which was to help better coordinate employee’s work and leisure time. Central to this is cementing in law that employees can independently decide how, when, and where they work.

Yet enacting the new ruling is not as simple as just sending employees home with their laptops. For Kirsimarja Blomqvist, a professor of knowledge management at LUT University, perhaps the most fundamental feature that remote work relies upon is a deeply rooted culture of trust, which Helsinki’s residents speak of with pride. The anecdotal evidence is backed up by data which suggests that Finland boasts one of the highest levels of trust and social cohesion in Europe, and equality and transparency have always been key cornerstones of political thought in the country.

“Trust is part of a national culture in Finland – it’s important and people value it highly,” she explains. “There’s good job independence, and people are valued in terms of what they do, not how many hours they work for. Organisations tend to be non-hierarchical, and there is a rich history of cooperation between trade unions, employers, and employees to set up innovative working practices and make workers feel trusted and valued. 

“It’s now important that we ensure that this trust can continue to be built over technology, when workers might have been more used to building it face-to-face.”

As companies begin to look hopefully toward a post-Covid future, the complexities of remote work are apparent. Yet amid issues of privacy, presenteeism, and social isolation, the Helsinki model demonstrates the potential benefits of a distanced working world. The adjustment to remote work, if continued after the crisis, offers a chance to improve companies’ geographical diversity and for employers to demonstrate trust in their workforce. On these issues, Blomqvist believes other cities and employers can learn a lot from Helsinki.

“People are now beginning to return to their workplaces, but even as they do they are starting to consider the crisis as a jumping point to an even more remote future,” she says. “The coronavirus pandemic has been an eye-opener, and people are now interested in learning from Finland’s good practices… We are able to see the opportunity, and the rapid transition to remote work will allow other countries to do the same.”

Katie Bishop is a freelance writer based in Oxford.