Frequent flyers representing only 1% of the world’s population contribute 50% of annual global aviation carbon emissions. But any realistic long-term solution will not punish them.
1% Of People Account For 50% Of Aviation Emissions
The figure sounds pretty bad, doesn’t it? 1% of people contribute 50% of the problem? But what exactly is the problem? Aviation accounts for only 1.9% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not to minimize the role travelers play, but does put it in perspective. Cruise ships, for example, emit up to 4x more carbon dioxide emission per traveler than airplanes.
In 2018, 11% of the world’s population took a flight. 4% flew internationally. The top 1% of people (not flyers, mind you) flew at least 35,000 miles per year. As evidenced by aviation blogs like this one, U.S. air passengers contribute the biggest carbon footprint among wealthy countries. In fact, U.S. aviation emissions are more than the next 10 countries combined according to a study by Linnaeus University in Sweden.
But Stefan Gössling, who led the study, seems to have the wrong idea.
“If you want to resolve climate change and we need to redesign [aviation], then we should start at the top, where a few ‘super emitters’ contribute massively to global warming. The rich have had far too much freedom to design the planet according to their wishes. We should see the crisis as an opportunity to slim the air transport system.”
You can read the full study here.
What Is The Solution?
As View From the Wing notes, this cannot come merely through taxation. Making flying more expensive would make it solely the province of the wealthy – exactly the problem the Gössling laments.
It is also highly unlikely that citizens of developing nations will scale back their industrialization or citizens wealthy nations will be willing to cut back on their lifestyles. Thus, the only viable solution becomes innovation. A world that sent astronauts to the moon, unraveled the human genome, and managed to create a COVID-19 vaccine in less than a year certainly has the potential to combat carbon emission. We’re already seeing that in the next generation of aircraft and fuel and I look forward to seeing what scientists and entrepreneurs will develop in the years ahead.
Which leads me back to the headline statistic. What should we do? Stop flying? Tax the heck out of frequent flyers or premium cabin travelers? Gössling considers leisure travel to be unnecessary, stating, “A lot of travel is going on just because it’s cheap.”
Cutting leisure traffic is just the wrong solution. The joy and gratification and human connection and understanding and wisdom that comes through “leisure” travel may not be easily quantifiable, but is immensely valuable. The solution must be in innovation.
Those that fly 35,000 miles per year are in the top 1%…not exactly a badge of honor when it comes to carbon emissions. But I think any sort of discussion that seeks to levy punitive damages against air travelers is dead on arrival. We will win the battle over carbon emissions, but it will come via technology and innovation, not a rolling back of economic progress aviation has made possible.