Guests : Aidan Lawrence | Eastern Cape Deputy Chair at Southern Africa Tourism
Services Association |
As the global pushback against flying gains momentum because of air travel’s impact
on the climate crisis, the South African travel industry has come up with an innovative
offset mechanism — planting carbon-sucking spekboom to combat ‘flygskam’.
Flygskam — the word coined in Sweden to describe the shame of flying because of the
high amount of climate-changing carbon that air travel generates — is gaining traction
in Europe with increasing numbers turning to rail instead.
While the flygskam movement can help cut carbon emissions, if the trend grows
substantially it could have a negative impact on tourism in countries that Europeans
cannot reach by hopping on a train — such as South Africa.
The South African tourism industry is alert to that and has come up with a scheme it
hopes will ensure European tourists don’t ditch plans to fly here on holiday because of
the embarrassment of clocking up carbon emissions.
The idea takes the form of a carbon-offsetting project launched a few weeks ago at the
Southern African Tourism Services Association’s (SATSA) annual conference in the
SATSA hopes that the project will grow to such a level that tourist flights to and from
South Africa will eventually become carbon-neutral.
There is nothing hi-tech about it, nor anything involving complex finance or carbon
markets. It simply entails planting succulents. Not just any succulents, but the humble
spekboom — many millions of them — as a carbon-offsetting mechanism.
Chief operating officer of SATSA Hannelie du Toit acknowledges that it is a tough goal
to reach, but believes the industry needed to take the first step.
Du Toit believes South Africa is the first country to put a mechanism in place to counter
“The trend around flight shame started in Sweden and it appears to be getting louder
and louder. We want to be prepared because if it gets loud enough it could have an
impact on tourism here, and tourism is one of South Africa’s economic pillars.”
Flygskam — literally translated it means “flying shame” — began in mid-2017 when
Swedish singer Staffan Lindberg wrote an article on the subject and persuaded some
friends to sign the article as a commitment to stop flying. They included Olympic
medallist Björn Ferry and opera singer Malena Ernman, mother of teenage climate
activist Greta Thunberg.
The anti-flying movement has spread from Sweden to other European countries and has
made enough impact for the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to sit up and
take note. It was reported that flygskam was a major topic at the IATA conference in
Seoul in June, where IATA head Alexandre de Juniac said that if left “unchallenged”, the
sentiment would spread.
Global tourism as a whole accounts for about 8% of carbon emissions.
Commercial flights are responsible for about 2.5% of carbon emissions today.
International flights account for about 65% of these emissions. Aviation emissions have
increased by 26% since 2013.
The UK-based online publication Carbon Brief, which specialises in covering
developments in climate science and policy, says if aviation were a country, it would be
the sixth-largest carbon emitter in the world, sitting between Japan and Germany.
The aviation industry is in a bit of a tight spot. It has said it has plans to reduce its
carbon footprint, but there does not appear to be any quick way to do so. One of the
most effective ways would be to use a sustainable fuel that could cut emissions by 80%
on each flight. However, there is a short supply of this fuel and it is expensive.
The UN’s aviation agency has a scheme agreed to by 192 countries in 2016 that aims to
offset carbon emissions from international flights. It is known as Corsia: Carbon
Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation.
All airlines that take part will have to buy offsets, or “pollution credits”, for any growth in
emissions above 2020 levels.
It is a long process that will happen in a series of steps, the first of which began in
January when airlines taking part began to monitor and report on their emissions.
Corsia has met with a fair amount of criticism, not least because offsetting means that
airlines will not have to cut their carbon emissions, but instead will pay other parties to
reduce theirs. As the effects of climate change bite deeper, this may no longer be
Another problem lies in enforcing and monitoring the offset projects that airlines buy
into. Some critics say experience has shown that there are some dodgy offset schemes
that have a slim chance of ever delivering reductions in emissions.
The SATSA spekboom project is in its infancy and SATSA will have to develop ways of
monitoring the project if it takes off.
“The enthusiasm was amazing. The table was empty.”
Lawrence has been planting spekboom for years at his backpackers on the Wild Coast
where he also runs a small nursery, but it was not until he heard about flygskam at a
tourism workshop in Cape Town in 2018 that he came up with the idea of spekboom as
a carbon-offsetting project.
“A lady came up to me and asked if I had ever heard of ‘flight shame’ and I had not. She
told me about it and that triggered the idea about spekboom to offset carbon from
flights. I decided to approach SATSA and they immediately took to the idea.”
Lawrence says one hectare of spekboom can absorb more than four tons of carbon
dioxide a year — “making it more effective than the Amazon rainforest at removing
carbon dioxide from the atmosphere”.
SATSA will plant another 5,000 over the next few months and there will be enough
“mother plant stock” to roll out millions of new plants.
Lawrence says it takes six people about 25 minutes to plant 300 spekboom in pots,
filling them with soil, and less time to plant them directly in the ground. Each plant
lives for 200 years.
Lawrence believes any tourism outfit in South Africa, no matter how big or small, should
take responsibility for the spekboom carbon offset project. What he fears is that
industry players will “dump” the project on him.
“That tends to happen, that the person who started the project ends up having it all
dumped on them. It won’t work like that. Every tourist outfit must get involved.
Spekboom can grow anywhere, even in snow, so there is no reason why tourism outlets
all over the country can’t start planting.”
SATSA’s head David Frost echoes this: “Globally, the tourism industry accounts for 8% of
the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Each business must take responsibility for its
What makes spekboom (Portulacaria afra) better than most other plants at sucking up
According to the SA National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi), it is because the spekboom
has two photosynthetic pathways: one that most plants use, plus a second pathway that
it uses when conditions are unfavourable. If there is not enough rain, for instance, other
plants shut down and wait for conditions to improve, but the spekboom just switches
pathways and carries on photosynthesising and “slurping up huge amounts of carbon
despite adverse climatic conditions”.
Sanbi says a stand of spekboom can remove more carbon from the atmosphere than an
equal amount of deciduous forest.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report in 2018 that said
the worst effects of climate change could be avoided if we kept the global average
temperature increase to 1.5°C.
Achieving this would entail radical changes in the way we do things in order to get
carbon out of the atmosphere, both by cutting emissions and by removing what is
already there as a result of historic emissions.
Planting trees and restoring damaged forests is one way to go, so the spekboom project
fits right in there.
Globally, forests store almost a third of the world’s emissions. Experts say restoring
forests destroyed in the Amazon would pull about 1.5 billion tons of carbon out of the
But planting trees alone won’t the world below the 1.5°C limit. The IPCC report says we
need to tackle emissions on several fronts.
Kate Gordon, a fellow at the Columbia Centre on Global Energy Policy, is quoted in a
Columbia University publication saying exactly that.
“If there’s one thing the IPCC report underscores it is that we need a portfolio. We need
to reduce emissions dramatically, we need to come up with more renewable energy
options to replace fossil fuels, we need to electrify a lot of things that are currently run
on petroleum and then we need to do an enormous amount of carbon removal.”
The South African spekboom project has a long way to go before it will be big enough
to suck up the equivalent amount of carbon from air flights to this country.
And there is a lot of work ahead in gathering data, for instance calculating the amount
of carbon flights to South Africa emit, which Lawrence has begun working on.
“It is going to be lot of work and I would welcome help on any side. But you have to
start somewhere, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Tourism's response to the negative effects of Day Zero & Flight Shaming
Guests : Aidan Lawrence | Eastern Cape Deputy Chair at Southern Africa Tourism