How flygskam (or flight shame) is spreading across Europe

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Climate change and travel have been on the lips of most Londoners this week thanks to the Extinction Rebellion protest group currently camped out in Oxford Circus, Marble Arch, Waterloo Bridge and Parliament Square. 

In order to escalate the protest Extinction Rebellion announced plans to disrupt London’s rail and tube lines today, a move which Sadiq Khan said in a Twitter statement would “damage the cause for all of us who want to tackle climate change.”

The Swedes meanwhile have wholeheartedly embraced their rail network. SJ, Sweden’s national rail service, reported a record 32 million customers last year. The company attributes “the big interest in climate-smart travel” to its unprecedented growth.

16-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg. (REUTERS)

Flying, on the other hand, has become almost taboo as a result of its negative impact on the environment. And, in typical Scandinavian style (see hygge, lagom etc), they have created a roster of new words to describe this antipathy: “flygskam” (flying shame), “tagskryt” (train bragging) and “smygflyga” (flying in secret).

The move away from air travel was spearheaded by teen activist Greta Thunberg, who single-handedly kicked off the student climate strikes after boycotting school once a week to raise awareness for climate change. Thunberg refuses to fly and travelled by train to the World Economic Forum in Davos and the climate summit in Poland, while 1500 delegates flew in by private jet.

Swedavia AB, which operates 10 Swedish airports including the ones in Stockholm and Gothenburg, has seen year-on-year passenger numbers drop for seven consecutive months. In 2018 the company reported its weakest overall passenger growth in a decade.

As ever, social media is playing a substantial part in turning the tide of opinion against air travel. One anonymous Swedish Instagram account has amassed more than 60,000 followers for shaming influencers promoting trips to far-flung destinations and the hash tag #StayOnTheGround has been trending on twitter.

But it’s not just the Swedes racked with guilt about their carbon footprints. The Finnish have invented the word “lentohapea”, the Dutch say “vliegschaamte” and the Germans “flugscham”, all referring to a feeling of shame around flying.

In contrast, in the UK, plans continue for a third runway at Heathrow despite the airport already being the biggest single source of CO2 emissions in the UK and claims that a third runway would cause aviation emissions to rise by 4.9 million tonnes by 2030. 

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