The Swedish have a special word for it: ‘Flygskam’, or flight shame. It’s the idea that taking a plane when you could get to your destination by train or ferry is something you should be ashamed of.
Championed by teenage climate activist Greta Thunburg – who refuses to fly and travels Europe by rail instead – is this something that could take off in an island nation like Ireland? After all, there is no getting around the fact that flying is one of the most environmentally unfriendly modes of transport there is.
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According to the European Commission, emissions from the aviation industry account for 3pc of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions and around 2pc of global emissions in total. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s the rate at which it’s growing that’s a cause for concern. By 2050, industry experts believe that global aviation emissions could rise by as much as 700pc.
So how much impact does the average Irish air traveller have on the environment? According to the German website atmosfair.de, a return trip to London Heathrow from Dublin Airport results in around 256kg of CO2 emissions. To put that in context, the average car travelling around 12,000 kilometres a year generates 2,000kg of CO2.
In the face of this, some people are making conscious decisions to take fewer trips by air. Andrew Malcom is a professional forager who travels the fields, rivers and seashores of Co Waterford looking for edible plants, herbs and flowers to supply to high-end restaurants.
His job keeps him closely connected to nature, and the last time he was on a plane was in 2009 for a flight to London. He believes the environmental price of air travel is just too high a price to pay for what is usually an unnecessary luxury
“I don’t push my ideas on anyone, but this is something I feel quite strongly about. I used to work on a sheep farm 30 years ago and ended up becoming a vegetarian as a result. That started me off on a journey of looking deeply at the consequences of my personal actions and their effects on the world around me,” he says.
“I made the decision not to fly as a result, but kept it to myself because people would look at you strangely even a short few years ago if you tried to explain it to them. But the rest of the world is slowly waking up to the realisation that what we do as individuals matters.”
Malcolm and his wife Ann Trimble recently took a carbon footprint quiz online and were alarmed at the results.
“We are bordering on vegan and don’t travel much. But it was incredible how big our carbon footprint was. Perhaps self-righteously, I thought we were doing all the right things but it turns out not to be the case,” he says.
“We live in the middle of the Knockmealdown mountains and there is no public transport. We operate two cars and head in different directions for work in the morning, so that generates a lot of carbon. Electric cars would be ideal but we couldn’t possibly afford them. Maybe when there is a bigger second-hand market for good ones, we’ll go that way.”
Suzanna Crampton is an author and farmer based in Bennettsbridge in Co Kilkenny where she specialises in rearing Zwartbles sheep, a semi-rare breed of black sheep originally from the Friesland region of Holland.
“When I have to travel for meetings, I do my best to travel via train. It’s partly an environmental decision – it’s a lot more ecologically minded to travel by train than car – but I’ve also grown to prefer being able to enjoy the scenery or get work done if I need to,” she says.
Crampton produces meat and also highly sought-after blankets made from the wool of her sheep. These are routinely given by President Michael D Higgins as diplomatic gifts.
“Environmentalism is something I engage with every single day. I farm environmentally and work with the EU-wide Poshbee Project, one of seven farms in Ireland to do so, with the goal of building up and supporting healthy bee populations,” she says.
“I also do my best in general to use public transport, particularly if I need to go to the UK for work or to meet people. I haven’t taken a holiday in years. I don’t find the idea of travel all that interesting. I’m not a beach person so it doesn’t feel like a big deal to give up flying.”
This growing trend is something that the aviation industry has begun to take note of. Ryanair, for example, claims to be among the greenest of airlines based on the fact that it operates with a fleet of relatively new and more efficient aircraft and last week became the first European airline to publish its monthly carbon dioxide emissions,
However, it operates so many flights overall, with its 400 aircraft compared to other airlines, that it actually made it into the EU’s Verified Emissions report as one of the 10 worst polluters of 2018.
“As part of Ryanair’s environmental commitment, we will invest over $20 billion in a fleet of 210 new Boeing 737 ‘gamechanger’ aircraft, which will carry 4pc more passengers but reduce fuel burn by 16pc and cut noise emissions by 40pc,” says Kenny Jacobs, Ryanair’s chief marketing officer.
According to Andrew Murphy, aviation manager for the Brussels-based NGO Transport and Environment, a big problem with the way people use flights is frequency.
“A big factor in the aviation problem is people taking lots of shorter holidays, city breaks and getaways to different parts of the continent. This is happening a lot more than it used to and it burns up lots of fuel. If we reimagined how we travel and what our reasons for travelling are, we could do a lot to help the environment,” he says.
Murphy suggests that instead of taking weekend breaks in which you briefly see a city for a day or two, it would be better to travel more at home in Ireland and maybe take a longer holiday once a year abroad, as this would result in the more efficient use of fuel.
“This is something that employers on the continent are looking to encourage – I know of a few companies that offer their staff an extra day’s holidays if they travel by rail instead of plane. So in this way employers can help provide more flexibility,” he says.
“Burning fuel at altitude is worse for the climate than burning it at ground level because of how it interacts with the atmosphere. There are non-CO2 effects of flying that need to be factored in.”
Murphy says he has ‘sail-railed’ from Brussels home to Dublin a few times, even though it does take a little longer.
“I tend to do it when I’m coming home for holidays at Christmas or during the summer, and it’s pretty easy. It takes a little longer, but not much. It shows that there are alternatives, but the bigger issue isn’t the mode of transport we use, but the kind of holidays we’re all taking,” he says. “There are lots of options and alternatives to flying, but it takes a bit of imagination.”
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