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Amy Brown headshot

With Transatlantic Voyage, Greta Thunberg Joins Movement to Clip Airline Sector's Wings

By Amy Brown
Greta Thunberg

Teenage Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg’s announcement late last month that she would sail across the Atlantic to attend the United Nations Climate Summit in New York this September was met with approval by her fellow Swedes and other Europeans who are giving up air travel to reduce their carbon footprint in a growing “flight shame” movement.

That has airline industry officials worried, even if it has yet to seriously make a dent in air travel. Alexandre de Juniac, head of IATA, warned Unchallenged, this sentiment will grow and spread,” at an airline summit in Seoul in June, according to Reuters.

The airline industry represents 2.4 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions, according to Carbon Brief: but its emissions are growing fast, with passenger numbers projected to double to 8.2 billion in 2037.

In Sweden, the airline industry is feeling the impact of “flight shame,” from the Swedish “flygskam”, where the grassroots initiative Flygfritt has convinced 14,500 Swedes to renounce air travel in 2019 (aiming for 100,000 in 2020). Swedavia, which operates Sweden’s 10 busiest airports, reported domestic passenger numbers are down by 8 percent from January to April this year, compared to a 3 percent decline in all of 2018, according to the Guardian.

For Thunberg, who stopped flying in 2015 and got her parents to join her, there was no question that she had to find a different way to get to New York, as she explained to U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who kicked the climate debate in high gear in the U.S. with the Green New Deal. In a conversation arranged by The Guardian, Ocasio-Cortez told Thunberg, “If you land in New York, we will give you a Queens’ welcome!” 

Thunberg’s school strike movement to shine a light on climate change inspired student strikes in more than 1,600 cities in 125 cities. Whether her decision to cross the Atlantic on a zero-emissions sailboat sparks a resurgence of ocean travel remains to be seen—but her influence among youth activists is considerable.

Thunberg will be crossing the Atlantic with Team Malizia on a 18-metre (60ft) yacht, a high-speed planing monohull built for the 2016-17 single-handed, non-stop round-the-world Vendée Globe race. The vessel is owned by German property developer Gerhard Senft and sponsored by the Yacht Club de Monaco. Thunberg said she is refusing all commercial sponsor logos and “no money or future payments are involved.”

Such vessels don’t represent a realistic solution to most climate activists who spurn transatlantic air travel. There will always be exceptions, like the couple who had given up air travel for their low-carbon lifestyle but needed to travel from Switzerland to Australia for a wedding and spent 200 hours on trains and a fortnight on a cargo ship.

Meanwhile, there has been more talk about all-electric airplanes, but that young industry most likely will need many more years before such options can scale up. Meanwhile, citizens concerned about the rapid growth of the global travel sector have plenty of targets in their line of sight.

The cruise industry could next be a likely focus for climate activists; a passenger’s carbon footprint triples in size when taking a cruise, reports Forbes. Along with other environmental impacts, such as the disposal of sewage and other wastes in the oceans, his industry has been under increasing pressure to address these challenges.

One example of the global pushback against cruise lines is that last year, Norway pledged that its scenic fjords will become zero emission zones by 2026 and will only welcome electric ships. Over the past several years, Venice and other cities in Italy have demanded that cruise operators make their ships “compatible” with local infrastructure and environment. And officials in Dubrovnik, Croatia signed a memorandum of understanding with the global cruise industry as locals feared the surge in port visits has aroused fears that the popular destination “has lost its soul.” Watch for other countries to follow the lead of Norway, Italy and Croatia—in which case Greta Thunberg may have more travel options the next time she decides to venture away from her hometown.

Image credit: RedCharlie/Unsplash

Amy Brown headshot

Based in Florida, Amy has covered sustainability for over 25 years, including for TriplePundit, Reuters Sustainable Business and Ethical Corporation Magazine. She also writes sustainability reports and thought leadership for companies. She is the ghostwriter for Sustainability Leadership: A Swedish Approach to Transforming Your Company, Industry and the World. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn and her Substack newsletter focused on gray divorce, caregiving and other cultural topics.

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