Dear EarthTalk: What is so-called “Flying Shame” and what’s the climate connection? — Bridget J., New York, NY
“Flying shame” is one of those memic terms that has sprung up recently to describe guilting people out of taking airplane trips given the massive carbon footprint of air travel. Some call it “The Greta Effect” in a nod to Swedish teen environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who swore off air travel given its disproportionate drag on her efforts to slash her own carbon footprint.
Of course, Thunberg isn’t alone. In fact, the original concept of flying shame (“Flygskam”) actually started in Sweden, where “flying is becoming the new tobacco,” in the words of Andy Rowell of the non-profit Oil Change International (OCI). A recent survey by the World Wildlife Fund found that 23 percent of Swedes have abstained from air travel in the past year to reduce their carbon footprints — a jump of 6 percentage points from a year ago. Meanwhile, 18 percent of respondents opted to travel by train instead of airplane over the course of the year.
And the Swedes aren’t the only ones cutting back on flying. Other Europeans are following suit, which makes sense given the excellent rail and ferry systems transecting Europe as practical alternatives to flying. The concept has been slower to catch on in the U.S. given greater distances and limited passenger rail options.
Regardless, air travel is growing by leaps and bounds overall worldwide. “The problem is that, as the science demands we radically reduce carbon emissions, the number of passenger aircraft is set to double by 2035,” worries OCI’s Rowell. Meanwhile, each and every day the aviation industry consumes five million barrels of oil. In 2017 alone, the backs of airplanes emitted 859 million tons of greenhouse gas emissions. Indeed, burning jet fuel contributes roughly 2.5 percent of total carbon emissions worldwide. Analysts think this proportion could rise to 22 percent by 2050 as other sectors clean up their acts more quickly.
Meanwhile, there are no truly green, practical alternatives to kerosene-based jet fuel on the horizon. “Aircraft are becoming more fuel-efficient, but not quickly enough to offset the huge demand in growth,” reports The Conversation. “Electric planes remain decades away, weighed down by batteries that can’t deliver nearly as much power per kilo as jet fuel.”
So, what’s to be done? Swear off flying, that’s what. Flight Free USA is a grassroots campaign trying to get at least 100,000 Americans to commit to not flying at all during the calendar year 2020 in order to send a “clear signal to industry and politicians — and also to each other — that there are many who are willing to change their lifestyles to protect the climate.”
Yet another slice of the apple is called A Free Ride, an idea which assigns an escalating flight tax depending on how many flights you take per year. One flight per year would be free of tax, while 14 flights a year would cost a pretty penny in taxes, with the proceeds going to offsetting the jet fuel with green energy projects elsewhere.
Contacts: Oil Change International, priceofoil.org; “Direct carbon dioxide emissions from civil aircraft,” eprints.soton.ac.uk/368576; “It’s time to wake up to the devastating impact flying has on the environment,” http://bit.ly/2VoSW2e; Flight Free USA, flightfreeusa.org; A Free Ride, afreeride.org.
Dear EarthTalk: Are any companies in the “one-for-one” charitable space pioneered by shoe maker TOMS focusing specifically on environmental sustainability? — Becky B., Los Angeles, CA
TOMS may have been the first company to implement a “one-for-one” model, whereby it matches customer purchases with donations of free shoes to those in need in developing countries. But dozens of other businesses are now following suit with their own so-called “in-kind aid” programs. And yes indeed, several are focused on improving environmental conditions one way or another.
To wit, Brooklyn-based MPOWERD makes and sells solar powered task lights and other related off-grid gear — and donates another of each item sold to someone in need through partnerships with 650 “on-the-ground” non-profits in one of six developing countries. The company’s mission is to distribute clean energy options that provide a more economical and environmentally friendly approach to everyday tasks, whether users are in New York City or the Andes mountains. MPOWERED is a Certified B Corporation, meaning it pledges to use the power of business to build a more inclusive and sustainable economy and to operate in an ethical and environmentally responsible manner. Maybe it’s finally time to order some solar-powered string lights for that patio you’ve been ignoring?
Another eco-friendly business in the “one-for-one” sector is LifeStraw, which makes pocket-sized water filters that remove 99.99 percent of waterborne bacteria so users can stay hydrated and healthy even if there’s no clean water source around. While LifeStraws are great for backpackers or others who choose to go off-grid on adventures, they are also handy — and potentially life-saving — in developing countries, where the company donates one filter for every actual customer purchase. In many cases, LifeStraw partners directly with schools in remote areas of developing countries to ensure that students can focus on their studies instead of worrying about where their next sip of water might come from — and whether or not it will make them sick.
While these one-for-one programs look good from a public relations standpoint and often actually really benefit those in need, critics wonder if the companies behind them could have a bigger impact through alternative models of charitable giving. “Handing out aid in kind gives plenty to worry about,” reports The Economist. “It could suck life from local markets, and foster a culture of aid-dependency.” Another criticism of the model is that handing out goods instead of cash runs the risk of spending money on things people don’t need and won’t use.
Even TOMS itself seems to be shying away from the in-kind donation model it pioneered in favor of making direct contributions to worthwhile charities. The company recently started channeling some of the profits from its new line of coffee to non-profits like Water for People, which provides sustainable, community-owned water systems (and safe drinking water as a result) to impoverished communities in seven developing countries. These donations are not tied directly to sales and represent a new direction for TOMS charitable giving.
While it may have its issues, the “one-for-one” model remains a great sell to consumers who like to know just how their purchasing power is being harnessed for the betterment of humanity and the planet.
Dear EarthTalk: What have we learned from storms like Katrina, Sandy and Harvey about protecting our coastal cities better from the warming-intensified major storms hitting them? — Mitch Wyndam, Burlington, VT
Major storms like Katrina, Sandy and Harvey were devastating to local populations and transformed the landscapes of the regions where they made landfall. They also changed the way we think about — and design — our coastal cities. Let’s hope we’ve learned about where (and where not) to site habitable buildings, as well as the importance of maintaining — even expanding — natural buffers that protect the places where people live from unnecessary property damage and/or loss of life.
New York City has gotten busy bolstering itself against future “super storms” like 2012’s Sandy. Code changes, like requiring electrical transformers to be in the upper floors (not basements) of commercial buildings, and developing feasible strategies for shuttering tunnels, airports and subways, are just a few of the changes wrought by Sandy.
Developing resilient infrastructure is another way that city planners are hoping to mitigate future flooding issues, like at the recently opened Hunter’s Point South Park along the East River in Queens. One especially climate-resilient feature of this park is a big playfield made of synthetic turf that can “detain” a half million gallons of water when the East River overflows during a high tide or storm surge. When the tide goes back out — or the storm moves on — the detained water is slowly released back into the river through a network of exfiltration channels hidden beneath landscape features. An outer wall protects natural barrier marshes that filter water and can also absorb and detain more stormwater, as needed.
It was surprising just how walloped New Orleans was by Hurricane Katrina in 2005, given that the city’s leaders and residents were used to regular flooding during storm events. But the damage, displacement and loss of life from this “100-year-storm” event spurred long overdue efforts to bolster the city’s defenses against floodwaters — including efforts to conserve and expand outer marshlands, which serve as buffers against storm surges and flooding.
New Orleans also bolstered its infrastructure and capacity to handle flood waters. “Given similar evacuation conditions to those seen in Katrina, the (new) system is expected to reduce potential loss of life by as much as 86 percent without pumping and up to 97 percent with 50 percent pumping for a 100-year flood event,” reports Wolfgang Kron of insurance giant Munich Re. He adds that New Orleans’ post-Katrina flood mitigation system should reduce property damage by 90 percent for a 100-year flood event and 75 percent for a 500-year event, compared to the pre-Katrina situation. While New Orleans hasn’t been tested on such a major scale since Katrina, everyone is hoping the projections bear out when the next major storm hits.
As for lessons learned from 2016’s Hurricane Harvey, it’s too soon to tell, as many Houston-area residents are still in recovery mode. But no doubt some of the lessons from Katrina and Sandy will be applied in Houston and other coastal cities around the world getting ready for rising sea levels and more extreme flooding and storm surges as global warming heats things up.
Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest update on the Paris Climate Agreement? Have the participating nations been meeting their interim goals? Is the U.S. completely out of it? — T. Jenks, Newark, DE
Global warming has already started to change the face of the planet, and international negotiators are doing all they can to marshal the world’s resources to hold steady against accelerating the output of carbon emissions while we transition to renewable forms of energy. The Paris Agreement, signed by 195 countries in December 2015, calls on the signatories to voluntarily commit to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions in line with the overall global goal of limiting temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius by the middle of the century.
Negotiators from the Obama administration were instrumental in creating the terms and language of the Paris Agreement, emphasizing inclusiveness by allowing participating countries to set their own emissions reductions goals instead of being forced to meet mandatory reductions handed down from the United Nations (UN). President Obama wouldn’t have had the votes in Congress to get legislative approval for the country to join the Paris Agreement, so he signed it into law via Executive Order, committing the U.S. to its own voluntarily derived emissions reductions through early November 2020.
But when Donald Trump took the White House, he made good on his campaign threat to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement. While we are technically still party to the agreement until November 2020, Trump has effectively pulled the plug on planned U.S. efforts to cut emissions in line with promises made at Paris back in December 2015. Trump’s rejection of the Clean Power Plan and other Obama-era policies means there is no way the U.S. can make good on those promises.
Regardless, all the other nations of the world continue to join forces in an unprecedented show of solidarity in trying to augment their Paris commitments with even stronger cutbacks on fossil fuels and more moves to cheaper and cheaper renewables. And while the U.S. remains the only outlier on the Paris Agreement, critics point out that many European nations are way behind on their projected carbon reduction goals, especially given that the first cliff of 2020 is right around the corner. (Ironically, the U.S. has been rapidly reducing its carbon footprint given the glut of cleaner-burning natural gas due to the fracking boom.) Check out how different countries around the world stack up on carbon emissions reductions via the free Climate Action Tracker website.
Beyond the fact that many signatory nations have slacked on their climate goals, environmental leaders worry that the pledges made in 2015 are now already too low to prevent cataclysmic climate change. This is partly why the UN has called the leaders of the world to New York City during the third week of September to step up their commitments initially made almost four years earlier.
Given the potentially existential imperatives, UN Secretary General António Guterres is telling those attending the late September summit to leave their “beautiful speeches” at home and come instead with “concrete plans (and) clear steps to enhance nationally determined contributions by 2020 and strategies for carbon neutrality by 2050.”
Contacts: Paris Agreement, unfccc.int/process-and-meetings/the-paris-agreement/the-paris-agreement; Climate Action Tracker, climateactiontracker.org; UN Climate Action Summit 2019, www.un.org/en/climatechange/.