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The Excessive Aviation Emissions of The Elite

Updated: Jan 5

Martha Davies shares the alarming reality that 1% of the world’s population are causing more than half of all aviation emissions through frequent flying

Photo by Idin Ebrahimi

A new study has revealed that just 1% of the world’s population were responsible for more than half of aviation emissions in 2018, prompting fresh concerns about the changes necessary to curb the impact of flying on the climate crisis.

Researchers at Linnaeus University in Sweden estimate that 11% of the world’s population took a flight in 2018, and 4% travelled abroad. The most significant finding, however, is that a small group of so-called ‘super emitters’ fly more than 55,000 kilometres (about 34,000 miles) every year: this may include flying once a month, or taking three long haul flights annually.

These individuals are more likely to live in wealthy countries such as the USA, Luxembourg, and Canada. The USA itself is responsible for more aviation emissions than ten other countries combined, including the UK, Germany, Australia, and Japan. It is worrying that such a small section of the world’s population can account for such a large portion of aviation emissions. Stefan Gössling, professor at Linnaeus University, said, "In a world that seeks to reduce carbon emissions, we need to look at those emitting the most."

Aviation itself creates around 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions and 1.9% of all greenhouse gas emissions. In order to protect the planet and attempt to limit the impact of climate change we must drastically decrease the aviation industry’s emissions and, in particular, try to reduce the number of flights taken by these individuals.

The Future of Aviation

The aviation industry has taken a huge blow during the coronavirus pandemic, with pas-senger numbers down 50% this year; however, it is predicted that flight numbers will return to previous levels by 2024. This means that the aviation industry will have to make an enormous effort to cut down flights in the long term in order to tackle carbon emissions.

As the study suggests, those taking the most flights should naturally be held accountable, but Gössling states that strategies targeting these passengers - including a ‘frequent fliers levy’, higher ticket prices, or fuel tax - would likely have a limited impact, since the costs would not be a major hindrance to such affluent individuals.

Airlines have already pledged to reduce their emissions in a number of ways, but they have been met with heavy scepticism by experts. For example, the UN’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation has been seen as a slow and inadequate response to the ever-increasing urgency of the climate crisis.

The Need for Net-Zero

It is clear that we need to act fast to reduce carbon emissions. For the most part, aviation executives are not ignorant of this. In fact, they have pledged to reach ‘net zero’ by 2050 in a bid to delay temperatures reaching 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Such a change is predicted as early as 2030, and will have catastrophic effects on the planet, including more extreme weather patterns and sea-level rise.

Members of the UK Sustainable Aviation coalition have stated that the nation should be able to grow passenger numbers by 70% while gradually cutting down net emissions to zero. However, this will involve an almost unimaginable change in aviation practices as well as in energy and transportation itself.

To begin to reduce the environmental impact of flying, we must think extremely carefully about the role of aviation in our everyday lives, and this means first addressing the choices made by ‘super emitters’.

You may also like: Zero-Emission Planes Could be Flying by 2035passenger numbers down 50% this year

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