Nick Gottlieb: Virtue signalling about luxury air travel and carbon footprints entrenches bad behaviours

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      By Nick Gottlieb

      A local B.C. politician for whom I’ve volunteered in the past recently posted on social media about a beach vacation, noting that the trip was “within their carbon footprint” because they hadn’t travelled internationally in the previous two years.

      Unfortunately, they were wrong.

      I don’t think nitpicking about the exact numbers of our carbon footprints is a valuable exercise (it can even be counterproductive), but when we broadcast our actions on social media, we amplify their impacts.

      That’s the mechanism behind a phenomenon called “social contagion”—the idea that if you see your friends or neighbours doing something, you may do it too—that has been shown to increase the adoption of home solar panels and other climate-friendly behaviors.

      It’s also how “flygskam”—a Swedish social movement that translates as “flight shame”—has come to have a noticeable impact on air travel in Europe.

      That’s why it’s unacceptable, especially for people in positions of social power, to spread a message suggesting that long-distance air travel, one of the largest contributors to individual footprints and a significant contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, is “okay” from a climate perspective.

      We may have sustainable forms of long-distance travel in the future. I hope that we do. But as air travel exists today, it is not possible to pursue luxury travel within a carbon budget compatible with 1.5 degrees—or even two degrees—of warming without making a simultaneous value judgment that you, a relatively well-off resident of the Global North, have a right to fly and no one else does.

      The reason air travel isn’t a much bigger contributor to global emissions today is precisely because only a tiny portion of the world can afford to do it with any regularity. It’s part of why that same portion has such a disproportionately high level of culpability for climate change—as the latest IPCC report noted, the top 10 percent of households by income contribute 36 percent to 45 percent of global emissions.

      The top one percent are even worse.

      Consider the emissions of a single round trip from where I live, Canada’s west coast, to a beach in Hawaii. According to one estimate, the average one-way flight from Vancouver to Honolulu emits almost 800 kilograms of CO2-equivalent (an agglomeration of the various greenhouse gasses emitted by a jet engine). That’s 1.6 tonnes per round-trip, which happens to be exactly the average per capita emissions of the poorest half of Earth’s population.

      A single round-trip from Vancouver to Hawaii—and Vancouver is pretty close to Hawaii as far as places go—emits as much as four billion different people each emit in a given year.

      According to a report published by Oxfam, Carbon Inequality in 2030, average per capita emissions need to fall 2.5 tonnes by 2030 to keep the Paris Agreement’s target of 1.5 degrees of warming on the table. It’s tempting to say, “Well that’s easy enough; I’ll take one or two fewer flights.” Not so. As residents of wealthier northern countries, we contribute far more to the global average than the bottom 50 percent (who already live well below a 1.5 degree-compatible footprint today).

      The report projected the impacts of today’s climate policies and commitments through 2030 to see how emissions inequality would develop. It found virtually no change from today for the wealthier parts of the world: average per capita emissions of the top 10 percent globally will still be 10 times a 1.5-compatible level in 2030, and as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has noted many times, if we don’t get on the 1.5 track by 2030, we can’t get on it at all.

      Flying is an action that simply doesn’t fit within a justifiable “carbon footprint”. That doesn’t mean you can’t do it or that this is an attempt to launch a “flygskam” movement in North America. Whether you choose to fly, eat meat, or whatever else is a value judgment for you to make based on your own circumstances. But in the era of social media, the influence we wield over others can far exceed the direct impacts of our own actions.

      Whether it’s because of heatwaves, flooding, or IPCC reports, more people are taking climate change seriously than ever before. When you broadcast luxury travel on social media, you’re normalizing that travel, and by doing so, you’re pushing against this very real and encouraging trend and entrenching behaviours that must, ultimately, be drawn down.

      Fly if you will. But ask yourself what one of the four billion poorest people on Earth would think before you post about it.

      Nick Gottlieb is a Terrace, B.C.-based climate activist with a master's degree in ecological design thinking. He is the author of the newsletter Sacred Headwaters, a biweekly publication on the interconnectedness of social and ecological crises.