Even among climate scientists, Peter Kalmus is an outlier.
Kalmus, who lives in Altadena, California with his wife and two kids has not flown on an airplane since 2012. He takes the train to visit his parents in Chicago (“I’m fortunate that they’re only 2,000 miles from me”), and road trips in a Tesla Model 3; prior to that he drove a Mercedes 300D powered by used vegetable oil.
“It feels gross to me to burn fossil fuels,” Kalmus said.
The other reason Kalmus doesn’t fly is he wants to spark a cultural shift—part of a movement dubbed “flight shaming” that implores people to fly less on account of the emissions it produces. When he speaks to a crowd about climate change, he can back up his words with his lifestyle choices.
Nonetheless, it can be awkward, especially in a field where academics often jet around the world to attend conferences.
“It is very uncomfortable being on the bleeding edge culturally. It’s not a fun place to be,” Kalmus said.
While Kalmus said he doesn’t shame others for flying, he admitted the flight shaming movement is helping to raise awareness about the impact of flying.
“It doesn’t feel nice,” he said. “But things are breaking down so fast in the climate that maybe it’s time to not worry about exactly how nice we are.”
What is flight shaming?
The term flight shaming was coined in Sweden, where it’s known as “flygskam.” It’s part of a push to make people more aware of how their flying habits contribute to climate change.
According to Katharina Beyerl, an environmental psychologist at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies in Potsdam, Germany, there are two key aspects of the flight shaming movement.
One is personal—acting against your environmental convictions by continuing to fly even knowing the damage it does. The other involves castigating other people for flying unnecessarily in light of the growing consensus that everyone should try to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. (The people I interviewed for this story tended to fall more into a “lead by example” category.)
Beyerl said the act of shaming people is a relatively new trend that has likely increased due to social media.
You need look no further than the breathless headlines about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle to see flight shaming playing out in real time. The couple has been slammed in the press for weeks for doing environmental advocacy work while zipping around in private jets. At the end of July, Harry took a private jet and a helicopter to a Google Camp climate change summit in Sicily, where he proceeded to deliver a speech about climate change barefoot. (Because there are fewer people on board, private jets are less energy efficient than flying commercial, and business class is worse than economy.)
Earlier this week, while announcing a new travel initiative aimed at sustainability, Harry said he’ll keep flying on private jets when needed to keep his family safe, but promised to buy carbon offsets in those situations.
The poster child for the flygskam movement is Swedish climate activist Greta Thurnberg. The 16-year-old recently sailed from the U.K. to New York City for two weeks in a carbon-neutral yacht, garnering global praise and the ire of many conservative politicians. Thurnberg’s message is urgent.
“I want you to panic,” she said at a panel at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland in January. “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is."
How bad is flying?
According to Kalmus, flying accounts for 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions and about 5 percent of climate impact from non-CO2 effects such as nitrogen oxide emissions.
While that may not sound like much, it’s a growing sector (a bit less 4 four percent growth a year), particularly as flights become more financially accessible for everyone. A report by the European research firm Öko-Institut found international aviation could account for 22 percent of CO2 emissions by 2050.
Kalmus noted it’s a relatively low percentage of people who fly—maybe 6 percent in a year, while everyone else bears the environmental consequences.
“It’s the world’s wealthy flying around in these planes,” he said. “Meanwhile there are billions of people who can’t afford to do these things who are going to pay the cost.”
On an individual level, one round-trip flight from London to New York City generates the same amount of emissions as the average European heating their home for an entire year, according to the European Commission. Beryl said one transatlantic return flight from Germany to New York is estimated to release 1 ton of carbon dioxide per passenger, which has the potential to melt 32 square feet of Arctic sea ice.
When he flew frequently, Kalmus said flying accounted for 75 percent of his yearly carbon emissions.
What are the alternatives?
Some countries in Europe have already brought in measures to reduce the carbon impact of flying. The German government, for example, purchases carbon offsets to counteract business trips.
Right now, France and Germany have emissions-related taxes on some flights but they amount to a few euros per flight—not enough to change anyone’s mind about buying a ticket.
Frank Wolke, head of emissions reductions projects at the German Emissions Trading Authority, part of the Federal Environment Agency, said flights have to be considerably more expensive to offset the carbon impact.
In a few weeks, Wolke said German ministers representing various sectors will come together to decide on how to tackle climate issues. One possibility is launching a tax on cheap flights, which are commonplace in Europe.
“The prices at the moment do not give any incentive for the operators of the flights to decrease the emissions and do something,” said Wolke, who hasn’t flown for pleasure in 12 years.
In October, Germany’s Federal Environment Agency is hosting a workshop on power-to-liquid fuels (fuel converted from renewable electricity and CO2), which it says could potentially be a way to make air travel carbon neutral.
But Kalmus said it’s going to be very difficult to replicate the system we have now.
“These kinds of glimmers of research into possible future technology unfortunately have absolutely zero bearing on our decision to hop on a fossil fuel-driven plane today.”
Even when it comes to carbon offsets, Kalmus said they risk being an excuse for people to not change their behaviour.
“We just need to get to zero global emissions,” he said. “Otherwise it’s like a game of whack-a-mole.” Both him and Wolke said vacationing locally and using technology when possible for business can greatly reduce the need for flying.
According to Wolke, train is one of the most efficient ways to travel. Luckily Europe has a vast rail network, though taking the train is often pricier than plane, in addition to being slower—issues that will need to be addressed if more people are to switch.
The same doesn’t go for North America. During her busiest seasons, women’s rights advocate Julie Lalonde flies once a week, delivering workshops on how to prevent sexual violence at schools and workplaces around Canada. Lalonde, 34, who is based in Ottawa, often has to get to rural communities, including some that are fly-in only.
“We barely have train service in this country and we’re a massive, massive country,” Lalonde said, noting organizations who hire her would have to pay for the days it would take for her to travel if she went by train instead of by plane.
Lalonde said she follows a vegan diet, doesn’t have kids, and doesn’t commute to work as she mostly works from home if she’s not travelling.
“To me, I feel like I’m offsetting the shittiness,” she said.
Nonetheless, she’s been flight shamed online, which she doesn’t see as a valuable means of effecting change. A better way, she said, would be to advocate for politicians to create more green modes of transport, including improving the rail networks.
Giving up flying
Kalmus said more people will have to demand alternatives and fly less to motivate politicians. Of course, to tackle the climate crisis, a lot more than cutting back flights will have to be done, especially on the part of fossil fuel industries. But Kalmus believes individuals have the power to influence systemic changes.
Ultimately, he says people will have to grapple with the possibility of giving up flying altogether. Every kilogram of CO2 we emit is making things worse, and it’s not something we can just clean up, he said.
“[Flights] are probably the best example of something we enjoy now in fossil-fuel civilization that we probably won’t be able to keep doing in a carbon-free civilization.”