Environment and shame of flying (flygskam): French people aware but overwhelmed by preconceived ideas

A recent study by the Chaire Pégase that you can get here shows that if the French have well integrated the reality of the threats to the environment, they have a hard time separating the wheat from the chaff when they point at those they think are responsible.

It must be said that Greta Thunberg and her Flygskam (“shame of flying”), if they have participated in raising awareness, have also contributed to a lowering of the threshold of discernment and the disappearance of a form of critical thinking on the subject that can lead the actions of individuals and industries in the wrong direction.

We found this study particularly interesting and have decided to comment extensively on it here. Indeed, given what it teaches us, it would be a shame if its message were not more widely disseminated simply because the reading of a somewhat technical document (which we recommend) puts off the general public.

The Flygskam, a global interest for a localized impact

If we start from the analysis of the resonance chamber that is Twitter since 2011 until today, the topic of the shame of flying started small mainly by relaying press articles and studies on the subject before celebrities (researchers, civil society…) took it over and gave it a whole new scope. On the other hand, surprisingly, we realize that the subject is nowadays in decline, at least as far as the social platform is concerned.

That’s for those who talk about it. What about those who are interested and want to learn about it? In general, we follow the same trend with a decrease in google queries from last fall.

Finally, the national press, in its publications, follows the same trend, without it being clear what determines what.

Even if it is limited to a few industrialized countries (Sweden, the United States, France, etc.), Flygskam has had virtues that could be described, if not as educational, at least as awareness-raising. In some countries, a decrease in domestic flights (the most easily replaceable) has been noted in Sweden and Germany. But this is not the case elsewhere, in France for example, as the study shows.

Generally speaking, and we think it is a good thing at TravelGuys, the subject of the environment and the impact of certain industries on it, such as air travel in this case, is an almost global phenomenon, but in the end it only has an effect in certain geographies.

The reality of the impact of aviation on the environment

Yes, air transport has an impact on the environment, like any industry, and to deny it would be a monumental mistake. But the study tries to put it in perspective of other industries and tries to see if the sector is trying to contribute to decrease its impact in proportions consistent with its environmental footprint.

Depending on the research on which we rely, its impact on CO2 production is in the order of 3 to 6%. It’s not much, you may say, but we encourage you to ask yourself what 3 to 6% means on your mortgage or your next raise and you may take it more seriously.

But as a comparison, the impact of internet-related activities is 4% and could reach 8% in 2025. This is something that is known but that people like to keep quiet for reasons one can imagine. But, something much less known, the contribution of the textile and clothing industry is 10%! And there it makes a little more shudder.

So much for photography. But both economic activity and climate change are dynamics in motion, so what matters is their evolution.

From this point of view, the report shows that the airline industry is a sick person who is aware of his situation and who started to treat itself long ago. Today, the sector’s emissions are increasing at a slower rate than traffic is growing, which is good news even if we would like to see them decrease. By way of comparison, in 19 years they have grown “only” by 21% while traffic has grown by 69%.

Manufacturers are working hard on the subject, but the speed of fleet renewal (the average life of an aircraft is 25 years) means that, as the saying goes, “it takes time for things to happen quickly”. We are lucky, we are in a period of massive fleet renewal with, moreover, the programmed extinction of four-engine aircraft like the B747 or the A380. Today, fuel consumption is 2.7 l/100km per passenger on long-haul flights and 2.2 on medium-haul flights. Better engines, lighter materials, the levers for improvement are numerous. On the other hand, we will have to wait until 100% electric aircrafts become a reality.

The airlines on their side are chasing the weight and compensate more and more globally their emissions even if, in our opinion, compensating is not reducing even if it is better than nothing. The good news is that they have an economic interest in doing so and at TravelGuys we believe that, if not the best motivation, it is often the most effective.

In addition, there are global governmental and non-governmental initiatives in which the entire industry is engaged, which the study also details.

But when Greta points to the plane, the reader forgets to look away

A global awareness, concerned players working to improve things…so everything is going well. Well, not obviously. By looking at only one sector, there is a risk of penalizing it disproportionately, while neglecting paths that would have a greater impact.

But for things to go in the right direction, it is often necessary for public opinion to play an active, if not militant, role so that governments and industrialists emerge from their lethargy. This presupposes that public opinion does not have blinders on. And this is perhaps the most disturbing part of the Pégase Chair’s study, which commissioned a firm to conduct an opinion survey.

The first news is good: everyone is convinced that air transport pollutes. Well, everything pollutes, but it’s a good start. It’s best to avoid being in denial from the start.

The perception of the polluting nature of the textile sector also exists and in surprisingly high proportions (69%). On the other hand, the perception of the polluting nature of the Internet is disconnected from reality (54%).

So okay, everything pollutes, but who pollutes the most? And when we play the comparison game, the French systematically stigmatize the airplane whose CO2 emissions are the lowest of the three.

“Perception is reality”

I have a colleague who keeps telling me that “Perception is Reality”. In other words, when a person perceives something, even if it is totally wrong, it becomes reality for him and he acts accordingly in a way that seems the most logical even if it is not objectively so.

The study shows us not that the contribution of air travel to CO2 emissions is negligible (and that’s a good thing) but that it is totally overestimated in the collective unconscious.

For 52 of the French, air transport produces more than 10% of CO2 emissions (reality: 3%).

For 70% of them, CO2 production per passenger has increased by more than 10% in 15 years (for 10% by more than 50%). In fact, it has dropped by 25%.

For 24% of them, an aircraft consumes more than 10 liters per 100 km per passenger, for 40% more than 6 liters. The reality is between 2 and 3 liters.

Bottom line

We particularly liked this study because it was conducted in an academic manner, cross-referencing figures and relying only on reliable data. But mostly because it does not try to deny a reality nor does it say “many others are doing worse so let’s do nothing”.

On the other hand, by highlighting the poor knowledge that the French population has of the subject, it suggests that we are in the process of conducting an environmental transition with cognitive biases, which is not good news because we can let environmental monsters develop without paying attention to them.

How to reverse the trend? By a better communication and more transparency from the airlines of course but of course they will be accused of Greenwashing.

By a greater critical spirit of public opinion, more curiosity? Not obvious either.

What worries us the most is that a nice culprit has been found to beat up on without worrying about the forest behind it. Easier to bash on the plane than on Netflix, right? And yet.

The transition is necessary and will only take place if all sectors are pushed into it, and here we are very far from it.

In any case, we wish you an excellent reading and hope that our prose will make you want to read the study and dig deeper into it all by yourself.

About the Pégase Chair

The Pegasus Chair is the only French chair dedicated to the economics and management of air transport and aerospace.

Created by Professor Paul Chiambaretto, the Pégase Chair aims to strengthen the links between the academic world and businesses in the aviation and aerospace sectors.

The Pegasus Chair is attached to Montpellier Business School, but it is developed in collaboration with several scientific institutions including the University of Montpellier.

The activities of the Chair are articulated around 3 axes

– Scientific research activities to create new knowledge

– Teaching activities to train the managers of tomorrow

– Orientation activities and animation of the alumni network in the aviation and aerospace sectors

Photo : Shame of flying by Ivan Marc via Shutterstock

Bertrand Duperrin
Bertrand Duperrinhttp://www.duperrin.com
Compulsive traveler, present in the French #avgeek community since the late 2000s and passionate about (long) travel since his youth, Bertrand Duperrin co-founded Travel Guys with Olivier Delestre in March 2015.
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