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 build its emerging “megaregions”, the USA should turn to trains

Under construction: high speed rail in California. Image: Getty.

An extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, out now from Island Press.

A regional transportation system does not become balanced until all its parts are operating effectively. Highways, arterial streets, and local streets are essential, and every megaregion has them, although there is often a big backlog of needed repairs, especially for bridges. Airports for long-distance travel are also recognized as essential, and there are major airports in all the evolving megaregions. Both highways and airports are overloaded at peak periods in the megaregions because of gaps in the rest of the transportation system. Predictions for 2040, when the megaregions will be far more developed than they are today, show that there will be much worse traffic congestion and more airport delays.

What is needed to create a better balance? Passenger rail service that is fast enough to be competitive with driving and with some short airplane trips, commuter rail to major employment centers to take some travelers off highways, and improved local transit systems, especially those that make use of exclusive transit rights-of-way, again to reduce the number of cars on highways and arterial roads. Bicycle paths, sidewalks, and pedestrian paths are also important for reducing car trips in neighborhoods and business centers.

Implementing “fast enough” passenger rail

Long-distance Amtrak trains and commuter rail on conventional, unelectrified tracks are powered by diesel locomotives that can attain a maximum permitted speed of 79 miles per hour, which works out to average operating speeds of 30 to 50 miles per hour. At these speeds, trains are not competitive with driving or even short airline flights.

Trains that can attain 110 miles per hour and can operate at average speeds of 70 miles per hour are fast enough to help balance transportation in megaregions. A trip that takes two to three hours by rail can be competitive with a one-hour flight because of the need to allow an hour and a half or more to get to the boarding area through security, plus the time needed to pick up checked baggage. A two-to-three-hour train trip can be competitive with driving when the distance between destinations is more than two hundred miles – particularly for business travelers who want to sit and work on the train. Of course, the trains also have to be frequent enough, and the traveler’s destination needs to be easily reachable from a train station.

An important factor in reaching higher railway speeds is the recent federal law requiring all trains to have a positive train control safety system, where automated devices manage train separation to avoid collisions, as well as to prevent excessive speeds and deal with track repairs and other temporary situations. What are called high-speed trains in the United States, averaging 70 miles per hour, need gate controls at grade crossings, upgraded tracks, and trains with tilt technology – as on the Acela trains – to permit faster speeds around curves. The Virgin Trains in Florida have diesel-electric locomotives with an electrical generator on board that drives the train but is powered by a diesel engine. 

The faster the train needs to operate, the larger, and heavier, these diesel-electric locomotives have to be, setting an effective speed limit on this technology. The faster speeds possible on the portion of Amtrak’s Acela service north of New Haven, Connecticut, came after the entire line was electrified, as engines that get their power from lines along the track can be smaller and much lighter, and thus go faster. Catenary or third-rail electric trains, like Amtrak’s Acela, can attain speeds of 150 miles per hour, but only a few portions of the tracks now permit this, and average operating speeds are much lower.

Possible alternatives to fast enough trains

True electric high-speed rail can attain maximum operating speeds of 150 to 220 miles per hour, with average operating speeds from 120 to 200 miles per hour. These trains need their own grade-separated track structure, which means new alignments, which are expensive to build. In some places the property-acquisition problem may make a new alignment impossible, unless tunnels are used. True high speeds may be attained by the proposed Texas Central train from Dallas to Houston, and on some portions of the California High-Speed Rail line, should it ever be completed. All of the California line is to be electrified, but some sections will be conventional tracks so that average operating speeds will be lower.


Maglev technology is sometimes mentioned as the ultimate solution to attaining high-speed rail travel. A maglev train travels just above a guideway using magnetic levitation and is propelled by electromagnetic energy. There is an operating maglev train connecting the center of Shanghai to its Pudong International Airport. It can reach a top speed of 267 miles per hour, although its average speed is much lower, as the distance is short and most of the trip is spent getting up to speed or decelerating. The Chinese government has not, so far, used this technology in any other application while building a national system of long-distance, high-speed electric trains. However, there has been a recent announcement of a proposed Chinese maglev train that can attain speeds of 375 miles per hour.

The Hyperloop is a proposed technology that would, in theory, permit passenger trains to travel through large tubes from which all air has been evacuated, and would be even faster than today’s highest-speed trains. Elon Musk has formed a company to develop this virtually frictionless mode of travel, which would have speeds to make it competitive with medium- and even long-distance airplane travel. However, the Hyperloop technology is not yet ready to be applied to real travel situations, and the infrastructure to support it, whether an elevated system or a tunnel, will have all the problems of building conventional high-speed rail on separate guideways, and will also be even more expensive, as a tube has to be constructed as well as the train.

Megaregions need fast enough trains now

Even if new technology someday creates long-distance passenger trains with travel times competitive with airplanes, passenger traffic will still benefit from upgrading rail service to fast-enough trains for many of the trips within a megaregion, now and in the future. States already have the responsibility of financing passenger trains in megaregion rail corridors. Section 209 of the federal Passenger Rail Investment and Improvement Act of 2008 requires states to pay 85 percent of operating costs for all Amtrak routes of less than 750 miles (the legislation exempts the Northeast Corridor) as well as capital maintenance costs of the Amtrak equipment they use, plus support costs for such programs as safety and marketing. 

California’s Caltrans and Capitol Corridor Joint Powers Authority, Connecticut, Indiana, Illinois, Maine’s Northern New England Passenger Rail Authority, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin all have agreements with Amtrak to operate their state corridor services. Amtrak has agreements with the freight railroads that own the tracks, and by law, its operations have priority over freight trains.

At present it appears that upgrading these corridor services to fast-enough trains will also be primarily the responsibility of the states, although they may be able to receive federal grants and loans. The track improvements being financed by the State of Michigan are an example of the way a state can take control over rail service. These tracks will eventually be part of 110-mile-per-hour service between Chicago and Detroit, with commitments from not just Michigan but also Illinois and Indiana. Fast-enough service between Chicago and Detroit could become a major organizer in an evolving megaregion, with stops at key cities along the way, including Kalamazoo, Battle Creek, and Ann Arbor. 

Cooperation among states for faster train service requires formal agreements, in this case, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Compact. The participants are Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. There is also an advocacy organization to support the objectives of the compact, the Midwest Interstate Passenger Rail Commission.

States could, in future, reach operating agreements with a private company such as Virgin Trains USA, but the private company would have to negotiate its own agreement with the freight railroads, and also negotiate its own dispatching priorities. Virgin Trains says in its prospectus that it can finance track improvements itself. If the Virgin Trains service in Florida proves to be profitable, it could lead to other private investments in fast-enough trains.

Jonathan Barnett is an emeritus Professor of Practice in City and Regional Planning, and former director of the Urban Design Program, at the University of Pennsylvania. 

This is an extract from “Designing the Megaregion: Meeting Urban Challenges at a New Scale”, published now by Island Press. You can find out more here.