Flygskam: Swedes Are Feeling Guilty About Carbon Emissions From Flights

Apr 17, 2019

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Sweden is undergoing a cultural sensation that’s having an impact on travel. It’s called flygskam, or “flight shame,” — a feeling of guilt from traveling via airplane that has spread nationwide.

It’s not breaking news that air travel can be detrimental to the environment. In fact, this year, an airline made it into the top 10 carbon polluters in Europe for the first time ever. From the waste generated by discarded plastic bags, cutlery, cups, napkins, etc. to the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) released every time an airplane takes flight — the negative environmental impact caused by airlines is well known. 

Hence, flygskam.

Jenny Schroder is the head of operations at travel agency Jubel, and is familiar with the sensation of flygskam. “I actually experienced flygskam before I found out that it was a defined concept,” said Schroder. “Flying has always been a huge part of my life as my family lives spread out across the globe — the majority of my family lives in Sweden, my parents live in Bermuda and my siblings and I constantly find ourselves between the US, Europe, Mexico and anywhere else we feel like discovering. Not flying is not an option for us.”

When Schroder discovered the term flygskam itself, she said it felt like a puzzle piece falling into place for her — and she imagines a lot of Swedes feel the same way. “As a country which also travels an enormous amount though, I think a lot of Swedes are struggling with this same disconnect in ideals that I am,” said Schroder. “Sweden, in general, is a country of fairly like-minded people, so once an idea gains traction, it tends to become pretty widespread.”

Since its inception, flygskam has leaked into Swedish culture in a multitude of ways, even inspiring new terminology. For example, besides flygskam, terms like tågskryt (train-bragging) and att smygflyga (to fly in secret) have infiltrated the Swedish language.

Flygskam has perhaps made its biggest splash on social media. For one, there is an infamous Instagram page, Aningslösa Influencers — “Naive Influencers” — that points the finger at Instagrammers, using a carbon calculator to measure the environmental impact of their flights. It should also be noted that a well-known Scandinavian Airlines pilot on Instagram, @bjornpilot, rebutted some of the premises of flygskam by noting that planes can burn less fuel than typical cars to transport one passenger over one kilometer.

Screenshots from @aningslösainfluencers
Screenshots from @aningslösainfluencers.

There is also the tågskryt-heavy “Tågsemester,” a Facebook group for Swedish travelers who opt to reach their destination by train. Group members share travel stories, tips on holiday destinations, train trips, booking advice and more. BBC reported that since January 2018, their numbers have swelled from 4,000 to 77,000.

In part, the rapid growth of flygskam in Sweden can be attributed to access to the large network of trains throughout Europe. In Sweden, train travel is viewed as such a viable alternative it makes sense that people would feel shame when it comes to flying. However, on a larger scale, not everyone has access to a great rail network — and trains aren’t the solution to all of the environmental problems of international air travel.

But that doesn’t mean that people in other parts of the world aren’t feeling the shame. Schroder speaks to this: “I haven’t really heard of the actual term anywhere else, but definitely recognize the feeling and have heard it mentioned by some of my international friends as well, so it is definitely a growing topic of conversation. As well, take Skyscanner and most airlines for example — most offer an environmental fee or show options for more environmentally friendly flights. I think this trend will only continue to grow, which is great.”

This means of relieving flight guilt is called offsetting, which is when flyers opt to finance projects that produce clean energy or reduce carbon emissions to make up for the carbon footprint of their flight. While this might not be as directly effective as not flying altogether, carbon offsetting is an option for people looking to reduce their impact who can’t avoid air travel.

And, are Swedes really flying less because of shame? The numbers say that, indeed, the growth of passenger traffic in the country is slowing down — but that it might be due to a new tax rather than guilt.

For more information on how to offset your carbon emissions, check out our guide.

Featured photo by Andrei Troitskiy / Getty Images.

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