Sweden’s Airline Industry has a PR Problem

In recent months, climate activists across Europe have stepped up their efforts to convince travelers to skip air travel, with infamous Swedish schoolgirl and campaigner Greta Thunberg spearheading the trains-over-planes movement. At the same time, “flygskam”, or flight shame, has become a new buzzword in the Scandinavian country, and the airline industry has responded by saying it is “hellbent” on reducing emissions.

“The sector is under considerable pressure,” admits Alexandre de Juniac, chief executive of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), following a meeting of members in Seoul City, South Korea.

Indeed, the airline industry has come under heavy fire over its carbon emissions, which at 285 grams of CO2 emitted per kilometer traversed per passenger far exceeds all other modes of transport. For reference, road transportation follows at 158, and rail travel is a measly 14 grams of CO2 emitted per kilometer, according to European Environment Agency figures. At the same time, however, the technologically needed to drastically reduce the industry’s carbon footprint remains frustratingly out of reach.

De Juniac says the industry is “hellbent” on lowering emissions, but the airline sector is fighting concurrent credibility battle amid accusations that it underestimates its environmental impact. The IATA chief has lobbied heavily against a proposed “green tax” on aviation, one that has already been backed by several countries, including the Netherlands.

“Often these taxes are absorbed into the budgets of states and are spent on whatever they want, except for the environment,” he claims.   

Even so, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) estimates that air transport is directly responsible for two percent of global CO2 emissions – roughly equivalent to the overall emissions of Germany. The Climate Action Network, an umbrella group of environmental NGOs, paints an even grimmer picture: aircraft also emit particles such as nitrogen oxides, which can trap heat at high altitude, meaning the industry is responsible for five percent of global warming.

In response, airline companies have been banking on a new generation of less polluting planes with updated engines, aerodynamic modifications, and fittings that weigh less. Such technological advances, however, face implementation barriers in an industry limited by high costs and the fact that planes can take decades before they need to be replaced.

In the meantime, a landmark UN report last year concluded that CO2 emissions worldwide must drop a mammoth 45 percent by 2030, and reach “net zero” by 2050 if the rise in the global temperature is to be contained at the supposedly safer limit of 1.5C.

If the aviation industry is to meet the 2050 deadline, it no doubt must make some pretty big changes, and quickly. Until then, flygskam looks to pose a major PR thorn in the industry’s side, with an emerging generation of both environmentally and tech-savvy consumers rapidly losing their appetite for air travel.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

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