The 1% of flying: a small elite is responsible for half of the world’s aviation emissions

An elite of wealthy frequent flyers that represents only 1% of the world’s population generates more than half of the total aviation emissions, a new study showed.

The findings reignite discussions about a frequent-flyer tax, thought by some campaigners to be one of the only ways to address the emissions of the affluent that travel so often and produce emissions that affect everyone.

Image credit: Flickr / Sean MacEntee

Aviation is one of the most energy-intense forms of consumption and before the pandemic at least, has been characterized by strong growth year after year. It currently accounts for 2% of the global emissions, and the figure is expected to increase significantly. Estimates before COVID-19 have suggested a further tripling between 2020 and 2050.

A study by Sweden’s Linnaeus University found 11% of the world’s population traveled by air in 2018, with 4% of people traveling abroad. Passengers from the US flew the most by distance, generating more emissions than the following 10 countries, including the UK, Japan and Germany, combined.

This small elite, named in the study as “super-emitters”, traveled about 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometers) a year, which is equivalent to three long-haul flights a year, one short-haul flight per month, or a combination of the two. The researchers believe this will have implications for how the growth in emissions is tackled.

The research gathered a wide range of data from airplane manufacturers such as Boeing and travel organizations and found that a large share of people in every country didn’t took a flight at all each year. They estimated the cost of climate damage caused by the aviation’s emissions at $100 billion only in 2018.

“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,” Stefan Gössling, who led the study, said in a statement. “The rich have had far too much freedom to design the planet according to their wishes.”

Since the pandemic started, passenger volumes have dropped by half. A large number of countries are still in lockdown or are quarantining arrivals from overseas, while others are discouraging people from flying until a vaccine is available. In the US the number of scheduled flights this week is 46.3% lower than the same period last year.

Nevertheless, private jet companies have reported much more resilient as demand from wealthy flyers is still on the rise. A report by the aviation consultancy WingX showed the number of private flights between 1 September and 15 October only fell by 10% compared to the same period last year.

Campaigners are asking policymakers to use the disruption brought by the pandemic to rethink their approach to the aviation sector amid the climate emergency. Previous attempts to introduce measures discouraging frequent fliers have usually been rejected by governments and the airplane industry.

Imperial College published a report last October, commissioned by the UK’s Committee on Climate Change, in which it suggested “a ban on air miles and frequent-flyer loyalty schemes that incentivize excessive flying”. The academics also endorsed introducing a tax based on air miles travels rather than using the number of flights.

On the same line, the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) said governments that are bailing out airlines amid the pandemic should ask them to implement a frequent-flier levy. This could provide public health benefits by curbing excessive, high-frequency flights that increase the risk of global pandemics.

The plans of the airline industry to reduce emissions, largely through offsetting schemes, have been questioned as weak. The measures have been estimated to have zero impact on carbon emissions until 2024. That’s why the researchers behind this new study are calling for further action to tackle the sector’s emissions.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic represents an opportunity to rethink aviation in terms of demand distributions, air transport wants and needs (private aircraft, first class suites), as well as aviation’s growth trajectory under recovery scenarios and the sector’s growing interference with mitigation goals,” the study concluded.

The study was published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

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