Canadian airlines feel the pressure of flight-shaming and the ‘Greta effect’

Canadian airlines feel the pressure of flight-shaming and the ‘Greta effect’

MONTREAL — Swedish may not be the lingua franca of the aviation world, but ask any airline executive about the term “flygskam” and they’ll likely know exactly what it means.

Flygskam — Swedish for “flight shame” — is a growing environmental movement that highlights the flight sector’s carbon footprint, putting pressure on Canadian carriers to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while managing the cost of passenger guilt.

“It does seem like a switch has flipped,” says airline expert Seth Kaplan.

“For a while, there was this very incremental recognition of the urgency (of climate change), and then over the past year or so all this has really gotten into the spotlight — aided by Greta Thunberg.”

The Swedish teenage activist, who travelled by racing yacht to a climate summit in New York to avoid flying and its attendant emissions, has focused attention on aviation’s role in global warming, with consequences for travel companies.

The CEO of SAS, one of Scandinavia’s largest carriers, has attributed declining passenger numbers in Sweden to flight shaming. Meanwhile the country’s main train operator, SJ, said it sold 1.5 million more tickets in 2018 than the previous year, thanks to what’s been dubbed the “Greta effect.”

Other European countries are experiencing the same phenomenon. Germany saw a similar decline in domestic flights in 2018, along with a corresponding increase in rail travel.

To combat this trend, airlines are turning to carbon offsets, where they invest in projects such as wind farms and tree planting to compensate for plane-produced carbon dioxide.

Such measures could cost airlines billions, Citigroup Inc. said in a research note last October. The banking conglomerate forecasts that carbon offsetting economy-class flights will cost US$3.8 billion per year within five years.

Carriers could absorb the expense or pass it along to consumers via a higher ticket price, but airlines will struggle in the long run if increased costs deter travellers from flying, Citi said.

If airlines foot the bill themselves, “the cost of carbon offsetting all leisure consumption could be as much as 27 per cent of airlines’ profits by 2025,” wrote analyst Mark Manduca.

Offsetting corporate travel — which Citi defined as business-class seats — will cost another $2.4 billion, reducing airline profits by a further 17 per cent, the report said.

Commercial aviation accounts for about two per cent of global carbon emissions — a far smaller share than that of cars (estimates range between about 15 per cent and 20 per cent) or coal-generated power (30 per cent). “But it emits carbon in a very visible way,” Kaplan said.

“You look up in the sky and you see airplanes flying.”

In Europe, where the European Commission has called for a climate-neutral Europe by 2050, airlines have taken big steps in response.

EasyJet announced in November it would begin to offset emissions immediately, a move that they claim makes them the first major airline to operate net-zero carbon flights.

British Airways followed suit and began offsetting all flights within the United Kingdom as of Jan. 1

New York-based JetBlue unveiled plans to go carbon-neutral on all domestic flights starting in July, the first major U.S. carrier to do so.

Canadian airlines have also made efforts to reduce their carbon footprints, albeit less ambitious ones than their European counterparts.

“Using fuel-efficient aircraft is our best hedge against rising fuel costs and improves our carbon footprint,” WestJet Airlines Ltd. spokeswoman Lauren Stewart said in an email. “We are proud to have one of the youngest and most fuel-efficient fleets in North America.”

Air Canada has committed to carbon-neutral growth starting this year, meaning Canada’s biggest airline plans to cap net emissions, regardless of expansion.

Other efforts by the airline include more fuel-efficient aircraft and biofuel investment, said spokesman Peter Fitzpatrick.

However, the proliferation of budget carriers and a robust tourism sector is resulting in more emissions even as aircraft become increasingly fuel efficient.

A recent study by the International Council on Clean Transportation found that airplane emissions are increasing as much as 50 per cent faster than forecast by the United Nations, whose aviation body predicts aircraft fuel consumption will more than double by 2045.

Europe’s keen awareness and aggressive efforts around climate change may justify a little “tagskryt” — “train-boasting” in Swedish — but travellers on a densely populated continent have a built-in advantage.

“There’s no high-speed rail network here like there is in Europe. The cities are not as closely located as they are in Europe or in Japan. And if I have to go to meetings in Montreal or the West Coast of the United States, flying is my only option due to time and cost concerns,” said Brandon Graver, the Washington D.C.-based airline researcher behind the clean transportation council study.

A lack of investment in high-speed rail by governments in North America is also to blame, experts say, with flights between Montreal and Toronto more appealing in the absence of bullet trains.

Even if Canadian airlines were to proclaim carbon neutrality, its effectiveness remains up in the air.

“There’s been a lot of talk lately that, ‘Look, it’s nice to go and plant trees, but it’s not truly a one-for-one offset — that there’s not enough tree-planting in the world you could do to truly offset the impact of emissions,”’ airline expert Kaplan said.

Nor do carbon offsets address the issue of fossil fuel dependence, according to a recent paper by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute.

“It’s not the silver bullet … to reducing their emissions, but it’s one option of many — while others would call them modern-day indulgences where you’re paying for your sins,” Graver said.

“We’re hopeful that industry and governments together can come together and come up with a climate goal, an actual action that is beyond just lip service.”

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Red Deer city council gave initial approval for more mixed-use developments in Riverside Light Industrial Park. (File photo by Advocate staff)
More industrial landowners in Red Deer are pursuing mixed-use zoning

A third of Riverside Light could become a commercial/industrial district

Central Alberta man facing second-degree murder in connection with December death.
Advocate file photo
Central Alberta man facing second-degree murder in connection with December death

Maskwacis RCMP said female found dead in Ermineskin Cree Nation residence last December

Red Deer College has been working towards obtaining university status for a couple of years. (File photo by Advocate staff)
Red Deer College can offer degrees without becoming a university: Alberta government

Red Deer College should be worried that its university dreams could be… Continue reading

The Mountain Cree Traditional Band headquarters in Mirror, Alta. has been the target of theft and vandalism. (Photo submitted)
Vandals strike: Artifacts worth $1M gone from central Alberta museum

AWNTB says not enough been done to deter crime in Mirror, Alta.

Alberta's chief medical officer of health Dr. Deena Hinshaw said there are 739 people in hospital across Alberta, including 120 in ICU. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Updated: Eleven more Albertans die from COVID-19

There were 739 people in hospital, 120 in ICU on Monday

Justin Kripps of Summerland and his team have competed in Olympic action and World Cup competitions in bobsleigh. (Jason Ransom-Canadian Olympic Comittee).
QUIZ: Are you ready for some winter sports?

It’s cold outside, but there are plenty of recreation opportunities in the winter months

People evacuate from the West Front of the U.S. Capitol during a rehearsal the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
Inauguration rehearsal evacuated after fire in homeless camp

Inauguration rehearsal evacuated after fire in homeless camp

Honduran migrants show their route on a map of Mexico and Central America to reporters, as they sit near a police roadblock at a highway in Vado Hondo, Guatemala, Sunday, Jan. 17, 2021. Guatemalan police and soldiers used tear gas and wielded batons and shields against a group of Honduran migrants that tried to push through their roadblock. (AP Photo/Sandra Sebastian)
Guatemala troops, police break up caravan of weary migrants

Guatemala troops, police break up caravan of weary migrants

FIL - In this Nov. 7, 2020, file photo Vice President-elect Kamala Harris speaks in Wilmington, Del. Harris will make history Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, when she becomes the nation’s first Black, South Asian and female vice president. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)
Harris prepares for central role in Biden’s White House

Harris prepares for central role in Biden’s White House

Biden to propose 8-year citizenship path for immigrants

Biden to propose 8-year citizenship path for immigrants

FILE - In this Aug. 14, 2017, file photo, a comfort woman statue is placed on a chair of a bus to mark the 5th International Memorial Day for Comfort Women, in Seoul, South Korea. Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, in his diplomatic speech on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021 said a recent South Korean court ruling ordering Japan's government to pay compensation to 12 South Korean former “comfort women” over World War II-era sexual abuses by Japanese troops was "an abnormal development absolutely unthinkable under international law and bilateral relations.” (AP Photo/Ahn Young-Joon, File)
Japan urges South Korea to drop wartime compensation demands

Japan urges South Korea to drop wartime compensation demands

FILE - In this Jan. 12, 2021 photo provided by the Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner, National Guard members assisting with processing COVID-19 deaths, placing them into temporary storage at the medical examiner-coroner's office in Los Angeles. The seven-day rolling average of daily deaths is rising in 30 states and the District of Columbia, and on Monday, Jan 18, 2021, the U.S. was approaching 398,000, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University, by far the highest of any country in the world. (Los Angeles County Department of Medical Examiner-Coroner via AP, File)
Coronavirus deaths rising in 30 US states amid winter surge

Coronavirus deaths rising in 30 US states amid winter surge

Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-Francois Blanchet holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa on December 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Blanchet’s choice to block critics on Twitter limits free speech: experts

Blanchet’s choice to block critics on Twitter limits free speech: experts

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole holds a press conference on Parliament Hill, in Ottawa, on Dec. 10, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Conservative policy convention may put O’Toole’s pledge of moderation to the test

Conservative policy convention may put O’Toole’s pledge of moderation to the test

Most Read