The Most Frequent Fliers Are Killing the Climate

The Most Frequent Fliers Are Killing the Climate
A meal lies served in a compartment in first class on board an Emirates A380 passenger plane. (Photo: Sean Gallup, Getty Images)

Just 1% of the global population was responsible for half of the world’s commercial flight emissions in 2018, a new study found. Those elite “frequent fliers” travelled about 56,000 kilometres that year.

That number doesn’t even account for private flying, which is the most energy-intensive form of travel due to tiny numbers of passengers (private jets fly with just over four people per flight on average). If private aviation were included, that 1% would be even further reduced.

The research, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, is based on data from a wide array of sources, including the aviation industry, the numbers that countries submit to the United Nations and internal national surveys as well as the authors’ own analysis of “frequent fliers” social media posts. The resulting study provides what may be the clearest picture of aviation pollution distribution ever produced. Residents of wealthy countries were by far the biggest culprits.

“Most of these emissions come from the very wealthy in the USA, Canada, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, [and] Luxembourg,” Stefan Gössling, a professor of tourism research at the Western Norway Research Institute who co-authored the study, wrote in an email.

The authors also estimated that just 11% of the world’s population travelled by plane at all in 2018, with at most 4% taking international flights. The study makes it clearer than ever that the responsibility for airline pollution isn’t shared evenly, yet its effects are felt around the globe. Aviation is one of the world’s largest sources of planet-warming greenhouse gas pollution, accounting for some 2.5% of all emissions each year before the start of the covid-19 pandemic. The industry emits more than the entire country of Germany does in a year.

“There is no other human activity that contributes to such significant amounts of emissions in such a short period of time,” Gössling said. “Essentially, on a 10-hour flight in business class, you will emit more than the average human within a year.”

Pre-pandemic, aviation emissions were expected to increase massively. The UN aviation body forecast that carbon pollution from planes would triple by 2050. The pandemic has put a dent in the industry, but how we got here isn’t a mystery.

“Aviation has built up massive overcapacities,” Gössling said. “This has led to a massive decline in the cost of air travel. People fly more when it is cheap, so this is induced air travel. As air transport has received state aid throughout its history, overcapacities also exist because governments [repetitiously] provide the sector with new funding,” he said. He laid this history out in another paper he published this year.

Since the spread of covid-19, flight passenger numbers plummeted by 50%. This provides a chance to course correct as countries grapple with how to regulate air travel and its huge carbon footprint. Stimulus bills and aid packages tied to the pandemic’s economic fallout provide a key opportunity for change.

Governments have handed airlines an astonishing $US85 ($116) billion in relief packages so far. But instead of prioritising money for polluting industries, leaders could invest in the pivot to sustainable, affordable forms of transit instead. And if they are going to hand airlines some money, governments could at least make sure there are strings attached.

Many countries, including the U.S., have issued airlines bailouts with environmental stipulations. But some countries, like France, have required companies to cut their pollution in exchange for these bailouts, including issuing orders to not compete with less polluting forms of travel like rail. These conditions could be strengthened and replicated all over the world.

Apart from stimulus bills, there are other ways for the world to decrease the environmental consequences of aviation. Countries could require flights in all sectors — commercial, military, and freight — to switch to using more sustainable fuels. Importantly, intergovernmental climate agreements should also start better accounting for the climate impact of flying. While the Paris Agreement includes goals to cut carbon emissions from flights, it ignores aviation’s contributions to other greenhouse gas pollution, like nitrous oxide. And international agreements specific for aviation have so far been watered down.

We could also cut consumption. I’m no advocate for austerity, but the new findings show that some of us could stand to fly less.