SHOULD WE FEEL GUILTY ABOUT FLYING?

Whilst it may be the newest phase of a global trend toward more ethical consumerism, the flight shaming movement poses an interesting challenge to Australia’s ecotourism industry.

Flight shaming? What’s that?

Unless you’ve been on a media hiatus, you’ve no doubt read the reports from around the world heralding #flygskam, or flight shaming, as the latest buzzword and lifestyle choice for the environmentally conscious traveller. The Swedish word flygskam translates to the guilt or feeling of embarrassment caused by stepping aboard an aeroplane, knowing you are making the biggest contribution a single citizen could make towards climate change. The word has encouraged a mass movement in Europe to boycott flying and preference other transport options, such as trains.

Why is flying a big deal?

The awareness of air travel being a major contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions is not new. A 2018 study found that between 2009 and 2013, the global carbon footprint of the tourism industry increased from 3.9 to 4.5 GtCO2e, four times more than previously estimated. Today, the sector accounts for about 8% of global greenhouse gas emissions, a large part of which comes from transportation, including flights. The International Air Transport Association (IATA), in its most recent annual report, showed that the amount of CO2 emitted by the airline sector alone increased from 860 million tonnes in 2017 to 905 million tonnes in 2018, with an expected increase to 927 million tonnes in 2019.

Drilling it down, that means that a return flight from Sydney to Singapore creates a warming effect equivalent to 6.2 tonnes of CO2 per person. A Melbourne to London return trip, conversely, notches up 16.8 tonnes.  Evidently, Australians’ love affair with flying comes at a cost, and we don’t mean to the wallet – interestingly, flight prices have decreased by 61% since 1998, after adjusting for inflation.

Girl looking at departure board

So, what does all this mean?

A report from the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) details how the transport industry, in particular aviation, must drastically reduce emissions as a part of a world-wide commitment to limiting global warming to 1.5°C by 2100. The report highlights that this would require ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes,’ including reducing CO2 emissions by about 45 per cent from 2010 levels by 2030.

Is this even possible?

For many Australians, flying has become a necessity – whether for work or to visit family and friends living across or outside of our island continent. Indeed, with almost half (49%) of Australians either born overseas or with at least one parent born abroad, international student numbers continuing to grow exponentially and contributing $32.4 billion to the Australian economy and alternative transport connections falling short particularly for long distances, it is hard to imagine how things can change in our own backyard. Besides, Australia is unavoidably a long-haul destination for most international visitors, and our tourism industry – particularly the ecotourism industry – relies heavily on international visitors and tourist dollars.

Clouds

So, is there a silver lining?

There’s a long way to go, but the airline industry is making progress. It is exciting to see experimental projects, such as Qantas and the agricultural technology group, Agrisoma Biosciences, growing mustard seeds in Australia in the hope of producing their first aviation biofuel seed crop by next year. Qantas and Jetstar have already trialled Australia’s first commercial Airbus 330 flight powered by a 50:50 mixture of conventional jet fuel and biofuel derived from cooking oil, and seem to be moving in the right direction.

Virgin Australia is also active in this space, supporting research into sourcing biofuel from sugar cane, algae and mallees, and partnering with American chemical renewable fuel supplier Geovo Inc. for a two-year trial program.

According to IATA’s Director of Aviation, Michael Gill, biofuel has the potential to cut emissions by up to 80%. Currently, it’s only filling 0.01% of the industry’s combined fuel tank, but this is likely because it costs 2-3 times the cost of traditional jet fuel. What many people don’t know is that the first biofuel-powered flight by a commercial airline happened some 11 years ago and that today, more than 100 global initiatives are working on elements of sustainable aviation fuel commercialization.

Despite this, IATA has some way to go if it is to reach its ambitious carbon reduction target of shaving 50% off flight-related CO2 emissions by 2050 compared to 2005.

What about carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting is the action of compensating for one’s emissions by investing or participating in schemes which aim to make equivalent reductions of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. This is commonly done through activities such as tree planting or carbon sequestration. These schemes are designed to prevent, remove or reduce the release of emissions, but do they work?

According to a 2018 Climate Council study investigating climate change threats to Australia’s tourism industry, offsetting can mitigate some negative impacts of air travel, supports worthwhile renewable energy initiatives and encourages consumers to take action. However, a survey of 139 airlines showed that only one third of airlines are actively engaged in offsetting, and information provided to the public is often confusing and misleading.

This may account for the low uptake of voluntary carbon offsetting, with only 2-4% of travellers globally thought to be offsetting their flights (this number is slightly higher in Australia, with one study finding 10-16% of Australians had purchased carbon offsets in the past).

Another fundamental problem appears to be the lack of transparency and credibility in offset schemes. If a customer cannot see how their additional money is being spent, it is understandable that they are less willing to take part in offsetting. As research from 2019 shows, over half of the world’s travellers are more determined to make sustainable travel choices than they were a year ago, but they continue to face major barriers, including a lack of knowledge, when trying to put their beliefs into practice.

Plane with sunset

A vision for the future

Ecotourism Australia’s 500 certified ecotourism operators around Australia are already leading the charge when it comes to taking climate action. Coodlie Park Farm Retreat in South Australia, for example, has been offsetting 100% of its visitors’ emissions on its own property for close to 20 years and Red Cat Adventures, which won the 2018 Australian Tourism Award for Major Tour and Transport Operator, includes a ‘carbon neutral’ option for every booking made on their website.

At Ecotourism Australia, we envisage a future in which this creativity among tourism businesses continues to flourish, where offsetting your flights, as a traveller, is an opt-out, not an opt-in decision, and where a diverse range of localised offsetting options exist which have true and lasting positive impacts on the natural assets on which our sector depends.

In an industry driven by the needs and expectations of an increasingly eco-conscious traveller, staying ahead of the emissions game is no longer just a smart way to gain competitive advantage, but a necessity to ensure long-term business survival.

 

[Photos from Unsplash]

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