Last month, teenage activist Greta Thunberg made headlines for deciding to sail across the Atlantic rather than fly to New York for the climate summit that kicked off the meetings of the United Nations General Assembly.
While most of us here in Europe cannot adjust our travel plans in such an eco-friendly way, are we at least beginning to make small changes to our behaviour designed to help the environment? Recent data from Sweden, Thunberg’s home country, suggest we are.
The country's airport operator reported that passenger numbers have dipped by 4% in 2019 and by 8% particularly for shorter domestic flights, while the state-owned train operator reported a rise of 8% in the first quarter of the year, according to Reuters.
In Scandinavian countries as a whole, the number of inter rail travel passes rose by over 40% in 2018, said the scheme's operator Eurail, while a recent customer survey found that most passengers said climate issues influenced their decision to travel by train.
"Although we cannot link our growth only to the decision of people to fly less, we do see an increasing trend in train travel, especially when it comes to family and senior travellers," said Carlo Boselli, the general manager at Eurail.
He called for more policies to support train travel, adding, "Changing people's travel behaviours is not something that happens overnight."
World leaders might want to consider not just enacting such policies but actually putting them into practice.
According to travel website fromAtoB, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is responsible for the most travel among the heads of the G20 nations. He took 38 flights in his Boeing 747-400 in 2018, travelling 128,000 miles (207,000 km) and emitting nearly 14,500 tonnes of CO2 gas, researchers calculated.
President Trump came second, with 81,400 miles (131,000 km) flown in 2018 with 16 international visits.
Among European leaders, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the most flights, with 83, but most were short haul in Europe.
Commercial flying still only accounts for about 2% of global carbon emissions and about 12% of transport emissions, according to data cited by the Air Transport Action Group. Nevertheless, individual impacts are high: the European Commission states that a return flight between London and New York generates roughly the same level of emissions as heating a European home for a whole year.
It is the likely future trends that are worrying, especially at a time when countries are setting targets for being carbon neutral. Reuters reports International Air Transport Association (Iata) figures, which state that by 2020, emissions from global international aviation are projected to be about 70% higher than in 2005, due to rising travel demand. Passenger numbers are forecast to double to 8.2 billion between 2017 and 2037.
Some environmentalists, however, argue it is not necessary to give up air travel altogether but to convince travellers used to flying on minibreaks several times a year to change their habits.
"What we need to do is get into a collective cultural mindset where we understand that air travel is a scarce resource," said Leo Murray of the British 10:10 Climate Action charity.
"It's frequent flying that needs to change," he added.
"Flight shaming" – an idea that comes from the Swedish-born concept of ‘flygskam’ –also seems to be gaining ground this year. In the spring, British actor Emma Thompson was criticised for taking a first-class flight from the United States to London to take part in climate change protests. Celebrities such as the UK’s Prince Harry and US actor Leonardo DiCaprio, who advocate environmentalism while also taking private jets, have also been accused of hypocrisy.
And, it seems, people outside Scandinavia are beginning to change their frequent flying behaviour. In a report released earlier this year by UBS, a bank, a survey of more than 6,000 people showed a growing number of travellers in Europe and the US have already reduced the number of flights they took over the last 12 months because of heightened climate change awareness.
Just tell this to Shinzo Abe.