I went to the Bath Children’s Literature Festival a couple of weekends ago, and at one of the events a very well-known illustrator mentioned that the main focus of the climate strike movement was aviation, before going on to suggest that in her opinion another industry was more particularly culpable. A hall full of primary school children (and their parents) nodded soberly – this was not news to them. They know what ‘flygskam’ means.
It is a commonplace in the press at the moment that the aviation industry is a major contributor to humanity’s carbon emissions, especially with the renewed efforts of Extinction Rebellion also hitting headlines. Private aviation is an especially soft target, with high-profile (and even royal) individuals and occasions attracting criticism for their use of corporate and personal aircraft.
The thing is, I have been trying to write this blog post for months now, hoping to be able to do some research and identify some positives to try to respond to this, but there is a dizzying amount of press coverage of the issue every week, and a bewildering number of industry reports from the last twelve months alone, and it is exceptionally difficult to find a unifying message or distil an accurate sense of the progress we are making – even if, like me, you work in the sector and are actively looking for some digestible takeaways.
To illustrate the confusion: one report says that electric aviation on a commercial scale is many years away; another says it is closer than we think. Our capacity to produce sustainable aviation fuel is rising, but is not yet at a level that will make a meaningful difference, and is too expensive anyway. Some governments are investing in research and infrastructure to accelerate emissions reductions over the next five or ten years; but other reports say we have only 18 months remaining before our emissions reach levels that will cause global warming to exceed the 1.5C rise that will cause catastrophic changes in our climate. Some airlines are making meaningful reductions in their emissions, and manufacturers are developing game-changing new engines, but Boeing has forecast a global air travel market 2.5 times its current size by 2039 and a global fleet double the size of what we now have. Against this backdrop, a survey by UBS released this month has found that passengers in the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany have started changing their flying habits, with 21% of respondents making a reduction in the number of flights they took over the preceding year.
Aviation doesn’t have globally visible individuals acting as lightning rods or organising forces or inspiring figureheads. It doesn’t have a clear goal to hit or a silver bullet solution to invest in, or a trending hashtag. So how do we shine a light through the fog? How do we solve the mystery of how we can better respond to the flygskam movement?
One of the usual suspects
One suggestion is that the group with the most compelling combination of means, motivation and opportunity at this point in time is actually private aviation. The recurring statistic is that aviation is responsible for 2% of global carbon emissions. Private or business aviation accounts for 2% of that 2%, or just 0.04% of global carbon emissions. What if, rather than repeating assurances that the industry is aware of the problem and working on it, we start now by fixing what we can? What if we focus the resources and capacity we do have on making private aviation carbon neutral first, while technology and production capacity catch up so that we can do the same on the scale required for commercial aviation?
Private aviation and those who use it have or have access to resources that the general run of airline passengers may not. For example, private charter broker Victor has recently committed to offset every flight booked through them by at least 200%. A customer could raise this to 400% by adding a mere 0.3% of the price of their charter – Victor describes this as ‘a small contribution, acknowledging that the privilege of flying privately comes with responsibility’. A commitment throughout the ‘bizav’ community to make a similar contribution would go a long way towards focusing attention – both inside the industry and externally – on genuine steps forward.
Private aviation is also better placed to back up this commitment to mitigate damage with actual damage reduction, by increasing its usage of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). The press coverage tells us that SAF is expensive (biofuels, for example, are at $16 per gallon, whereas the same amount of conventional jet fuel will cost $2.50), and we won’t be able to produce quantities sufficient to make a real difference in commercial aviation for some years. If aviation generally uses 87 billion gallons of fuel annually, and we presume that private aviation uses 2% of that, we arrive at an amount much closer to the world’s current SAF production capacity. If we were to focus on getting private aviation to 100% SAF use as a first stage, that would be an incredible step forward, and one that is actually achievable. While this happens, using the technology and capacity we already have, production capacity could increase to a level that meaningfully supports commercial aviation, while also stabilising the costs for users.
There are many motivations for prioritising the sustainability of private aviation, in addition to those shared with commercial aviation. Apart from the foundational concern to reduce environmental damage, the impact of being one of the first movers in the industry’s response to flygskam in the ways outlined above would pay real dividends for a sector with an increasingly millennial customer base and a looming talent shortage, despite innovating so successfully in other respects.
These changes would help to future-proof private flying for the next generation, and help further drive technological development and continuous improvement. In counterpart to the reputational benefit amongst users, many private customers and owners use this method of travel for reasons of discretion and security, and it is preferable to eliminate the potential for headline attention as far and as quickly as possible.
However, the media attention currently on aviation presents a rare chance to speak while people are listening.
People want the industry to come up with solutions – especially now that we have online calculators telling us how many tonnes of carbon emissions each one of us is responsible for with every flight we take. People want and need to travel, and we need to find a way to remove the ‘shame’ element of doing so. We can at the moment only mitigate this with respect to commercial aviation, but in the meantime we have an opportunity to position private aviation as the advance guard – to come close to completing at least one small part of a much larger project, by focusing the technology and resources currently available on genuinely achievable goals.
This is, of course, just a suggestion. But focusing on eliminating that 0.04% would be a real and measurable step forward for aviation in the flygskam discussion, and provide a clarity of response that we are so far yet to see.