Future of the Environment

The Greta Effect - why Germans are dropping planes and choosing trains

man sitting on bench infront of train railway

Travelling by train is vastly more environmentally friendly than flying on a short-haul flight Image: Unsplash/Monika Kozub

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  • Domestic flights in Germany have dropped by 12% compared to last year.
  • Train companies in the country are seeing record passenger numbers.
  • Analysts say consumer awareness of the climate crisis is a significant factor.

More and more Germans are following the example of their northern neighbours and keeping their feet firmly on the ground.

Like the Swedish, who invented the term “flygskam” (flight shaming) to encourage sustainable travel, Germans are now flying less and using the train instead. A cut in long-distance train fares of 10% this year should also make land-based travel more alluring.

The number of domestic flights in Germany fell by 12% in November 2019 compared to the same month the previous year, with flights to other European cities falling by 1.9%.

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Swedish airports saw an 11% drop in air traffic in 2019, with a significant increase in rail travel. Swedish rail operator SJ runs its trains on electricity from 100% renewable sources.

Short-haul flying in Germany has decoupled from longer trips
The fall of short-haul flights since the start of 2019 Image: ADV Airports Association, Fraport AG via Bloomberg

Changing consumer behaviour

While the German Airports Association attributes the dip in aviation to a range of factors, including rising oil prices and economic and trade insecurity, transport analysts believe that growing awareness of the climate crisis is playing a significant role.

“To me, this is evidence of heightened awareness of climate change turning to consumer action,” Stefan Goessling, professor of transport economics at Sweden’s Linnaeus University business school, told Bloomberg.

Alongside the decline in German domestic air travel, the country’s national rail firm Deutsche Bahn has reported record long-distance passenger numbers, with over 150 million using the train to travel for this purpose in 2019.

More Germans are travelling on the country's railroads
The rise in the number of passengers using trains in Germany since 2014 Image: Deutsche Bahn AG via Bloomberg

The company is aiming to cut its emissions in half by 2030 and run its trains using solely renewable electricity by 2038.

Putting the environment first

Support for the Green Party in Germany has been growing steadily, with recent polls putting it ahead of the ruling coalition.

These trends coincide with what has been called “the Greta effect”, with people around the world changing their behaviour in response to rallying cries from climate activist Greta Thunberg.

The Swedish teen travelled for 65 hours by train to attend the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos in January 2019, saving more than 200 kilogrammes of CO2.

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The Swedish government is investing over $5 million in sleeper trains to destinations across Europe, to help its citizens travel more sustainably.

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Germany has recently experienced its own climate-related challenges, including a summer drought in 2018 that saw thousands of farmers seeking government aid after their crops failed.

The future of flight

The aviation industry produces around 2% of all human-induced CO2 emissions and 12% of all CO2 emissions from the transport sector.

But, this is a fraction of the emissions from road transport, which is responsible for three-quarters of all emissions from the sector.

The airline industry has committed to reducing net carbon emissions to half 2005 levels by 2050; improving fleet fuel efficiency by 1.5% a year.

According to International Air Transport Association Director General Alexandre de Juniac, “Carbon is the enemy, not flying. Our goal is to keep the world flying sustainably.”

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Related topics:
Future of the EnvironmentClimate Change
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