“Super Emitters”: 1% of World’s Population Causes Half of Global Aircraft Emissions

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Occasionally I learn new facts about how we are despoiling the environment  that surprise   and depress – even me.

Today it was via an article in the Guardian, 1% of people cause half of global aviation emissions – study:

Frequent-flying “‘super emitters” who represent just 1% of the world’s population caused half of aviation’s carbon emissions in 2018, according to a study.

Airlines produced a billion tonnes of CO2 and benefited from a $100bn (£75bn) subsidy by not paying for the climate damage they caused, the researchers estimated. The analysis draws together data to give the clearest global picture of the impact of frequent fliers.

Only 11% of the world’s population took a flight in 2018 and 4% flew abroad. US air passengers have by far the biggest carbon footprint among rich countries. Its aviation emissions are bigger than the next 10 countries combined, including the UK, Japan, Germany and Australia, the study reports.

The researchers said the study showed that an elite group enjoying frequent flights had a big impact on the climate crisis that affected everyone.

One silver lining to the pandemic’s cloud is the chance it provides to reset this relationship:

They said the 50% drop in passenger numbers in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic should be an opportunity to make the aviation industry fairer and more sustainable. This could be done by putting green conditions on the huge bailouts governments were giving the industry, as had happened in France.

Governments could just say no to blindly promoting more air travel. Even before the onset uf the pandemic, there has been some reconsideration of the necessity of many short-haul flights, to be replaced by rail travel or eliminated completely. Regular readers know I’m a big partisan of rail travel and in fact prefer to approach a new destination as slowly as is possible.  It’s not just pockets of Europe that still preserve their trains. India retains its extensive, relatively cheap rail network, which remains well-utilized, and I regularly ply the Delhi-Kolkata route, as well as occasionally taken much longer journeys. two days and at least one night in a train. 

But I confess that I am a bit unusual in preferring the slow, languid rhythms of rail to the more frenetic pace of the air. Alas, the rich are not the only problem as air travel has been marketed to the masses, as the Guardian reports:

Global aviation’s contribution to the climate crisis was growing fast before the Covid-19 pandemic, with emissions jumping by 32% from 2013-18. Flight numbers in 2020 have fallen by half but the industry expects to return to previous levels by 2024.

“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,” said Stefan Gössling at Linnaeus University in Sweden, who led the new study.

“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.”

Dan Rutherford, at the International Council on Clean Transportation and not part of the research team, said the analysis raised the question of equality..

“The benefits of aviation are more inequitably shared across the world than probably any other major emission source,” he said. “So there’s a clear risk that the special treatment enjoyed by airlines just protects the economic interests of the globally wealthy.”

Yet whereas busy airlines had made air travel more accessible, many people had still not acquired the flying habit If we hope to manage emissions, reducing air miles flown until we learn to decarbonise flying, is a necessary step. Acurdding to the Guardian:

The research, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, collated a range of data and found large proportions of people in every country did not fly at all each year – 53% in the US, 65% in Germany and 66% in Taiwan. In the UK, separate data shows 48% of people did not fly abroad in 2018.

The researchers estimated the cost of the climate damage caused by aviation’s emissions at $100bn in 2018. The absence of payments to cover this damage “represents a major subsidy to the most affluent”, the researchers said. “This highlights the need to scrutinise the sector, and in particular the super emitters.”

And the study’s findings about the rich may be out of date, and lead to a misspecification of policy responses more appropriate to yesterday’s problem rather than the mass air travel of today. Again from the Guardian:

A spokesman for the International Air Transport Association (Iata), which represents the world’s airlines, said: “The charge of elitism may have had some foundation in the 1950s and 1960s. But today air travel is a necessity for millions.”

He said the airline industry paid $94bn in direct taxes, such as income tax in 2019 and $42bn in indirect taxes such as VAT.

“We remain committed to our environmental goals,” the Iata spokesman said. “This year – in the teeth of the greatest crisis ever facing our industry – airlines agreed to explore pathways to how we could move to net zero emissions by around 2060.”

A key pillar of the industry’s plans is the carbon offsetting and reduction scheme for international aviation, produced by the UN’s air transport body. But this was heavily criticised in June when revisions were seen as watering down an already weak scheme, with experts estimating that airlines would not have to offset any emissions until 2024. “I think they have a zero interest in climate change,” Gössling said.

Other research by Gössling found that half of leisure flights were not considered important by the traveller. “A lot of travel is going on just because it’s cheap.”

COVID presents the opportunity to reconsider our reationship with flying. I’m not here calling for a ban on flying, just a rethink of cheap flights, which inevitably lead to higher air traffic, just because it’s there. Or was.


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    1. Louis Fyne

      we’re already there.

      US and Western Europe population would be stagnate (US) or declining (West. Europe) but for inbound-migration….it’s been that way in the US since 2007-09.

      Income/consumption inequality is driver in the west.

      then add as the icing hundreds of million of new middle class and tens of millions of new upper-class in China.

    2. diptherio

      No matter how few kids there are, entitled, self-centered people who think engaging in destructive activities is their right, and that having to consider the impact of their lifestyle is a form of punishment, will always screw things up for everybody.

    3. jef

      So you want less babies so you can consume to your hearts desire? What is your parents embraced the Less children message. Wah!

      1. Felix_47

        Feel free to read the article whose abstract is below. Certainly we can deny climate change and it probably is not as dire as they say. Humans will survive almost anything but if we are going to talk about doing something it seems we should be working from facts. The biggest climate threat is more people. Having those people move to the US multiplies the threat as they go from a low consumption environment to a high consumption environment. If we can’t raise the gas tax with these record low prices it would appear we talk alot about climate but no one is serious. If we cannot encourage birth control we are not serious. The monthly cost for the pills in our Pharma Political PAC dominated system is prohibitive for most women in the US.

        Paul Murtagh et. al. 2009 Environmental Change
        Much attention has been paid to the ways that people’s home energy use, travel, food choices and other
        routine activities affect their emissions of carbon dioxide and, ultimately, their contributions to global
        warming. However, the reproductive choices of an individual are rarely incorporated into calculations of
        his personal impact on the environment. Here we estimate the extra emissions of fossil carbon dioxide
        that an average individual causes when he or she chooses to have children. The summed emissions of a
        person’s descendants, weighted by their relatedness to him, may far exceed the lifetime emissions
        produced by the original parent. Under current conditions in the United States, for example, each child
        adds about 9441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average female, which is 5.7
        times her lifetime emissions. A person’s reproductive choices must be considered along with his day-today activities when assessing his ultimate impact on the global environment.
        2008 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserve

  1. Anonymous

    I haven’t flown since people were required to take their shoes off at security; that was the last straw for me.

    So I reckon people must be pretty desperate to subject themselves to the indignity. Not to mention the torture of being packed like sardines, not people.

    The question then is why people are so desperate to fly for “pleasure.” May I suggest that stolen birthrights have made them desperate for even a “mess of pottage?”

    1. JBird4049

      Sometimes people don’t really have a choice. If I need to get to the East Coast from the West Coast, it is plane or a car. I suppose I could try the railroad, but the automakers and the aviation industry have successfully reduced it. Since Amtrak is now being run like the USPS… I guess my late middle self with the old injuries could try Greyhound (if it still exist) but it was an uncomfortable experience when I ten.

      Of course, between the TSA security theater and the shrinking seats of pain on those jet, I don’t want to use them. (it is actually corruption as it does not do anything except making poorly trained and paid people make other people’s travel experience worse.)

      So, what should travelers do? There is always going to be a need to go long distances especially in a country the size of the United States. Weddings, funerals, business meetings, whatever. But travel by air is increasingly hellish and it’s very polluting. Congress will not do anything on rail.

      This is yet another thing requiring the government. The corrupt,incompetent, thoughtless government. Now what? Reform the government first?

      1. Anonymous

        I did Greyhound recently and it was comfortable, uncrowded, had a pleasant view of the countryside and had wifi.

        And no TSA!

        The driver was a bit surely and the bus-stations crowded and old but I got to see and meet some interesting people.

        I’d try it again without question.

        PS: This was in Alabama where rude behavior is rare, in my experience.

        1. Howard Beale IV

          Juts because you didn’t have TSA ramshackle your luggage doesn’t mean you’re free from other federal agents who ply their trade on bus routes and engage in their usual civil asset forfeiture schtick…

      2. Rod

        you’re sounding pretty helpless here JBird4049, imo—surely not a reflection of your intelligence and resourcefulness(from your comment gleanings)–:)
        If getting E to W without Air Travel was essential to you, I have no doubt you could do so, in America, with a minimum amount of time and discomfort.
        You said Amtrak was getting USPS’ed, but it still goes–daily.
        Greyhound too, not to mention the Migrant Express Charters
        This is not a TINA situation–which the article presented illuminates.

  2. Stephen The Tech Critic

    The 50% reduction in passenger count is an impressive figure, but the total reduction in aviation emissions is probably much less.

    For one thing, we’d have to consider how much freight (including “2-day shipping” services) contributes to aviation emission. I don’t have a figure.

    We’d also have to consider private and charter aviation. How much of the “1%” is actually composed of a much smaller segment (say the 0.001% or even 0.0001% of the world’s population) who regularly fly on private and/or charter jets that guzzle much more fuel per seat than a typical airliner? I bet a lot of these people are flying as much or more now as they were before.

    1. Greg

      Freight is an interesting one, and I think would be even more skewed towards a few culprits than passenger flights.
      A huge portion of air freight is moved in belly space, rather than using dedicated freight aircraft. That is, passenger aircraft fly with a chunk of space that is not needed by passengers, and is sold to freight forwarders. There are probably arguments about subsidies to be made, but i wouldn’t have a clue who is subsidising who in that arrangement.
      Each sufficiently large regional postal/freight organisation has a small number of planes for key routes (mostly 737s and their ilk). Then you’ve got a relatively small number of very large freight organisations who run large networks of dedicated freight aircraft, the UPS, DHLs of the world. They’re probably the “1%” elites of the exclusively freight related air miles.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        Now fixed – I think. Sorry, I meant to add an apology to readers at the top of the post. Massive technical issues slowed me in posting yesterday, and are part of the reason the original version of this post was riddled with typos. I’ve now fixed many of those errors.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    It has always been a myth promoted by the airline industry that flying is for everyone – regular flying has certainly in my lifetime gone from a luxury for the well off (or a necessity for emigrants), to something people on middle incomes do almost like taking a bus. Its a little different when you live on an island like I do, but I know people who will take more than half a dozen round trip flights a year just on short holidays, and they are not by any means well off. I know several Americans and Asians who chose to live and work in Dublin specifically because the idea of being able to take regular cheap flights on weekends or short breaks all over Europe (and wider) was so tempting. Like Jerry-Lynn, I love trains and slow travel, but its very tempting that in pre-Covid days I could leave my office at 3pm in Dublin and be at a great surf spot in Portugal in time for late dinner that evening – and it probably would cost me less a weekend away in a village in Ireland west coast when calculating everything.

    But as the article says, a closer look at the figures shows that while flying is now accessible to nearly everyone (the nightly cleaner in my office regularly bemoans to me how Covid has denied her a holiday in her favourite spot in Spain this year), it is primarily the better off who are the backbone of the industry – mostly I suspect because of lucrative business routes and long haul flights.

    I strongly suspect that business flights are, if not dead, then a business that simply will never get back to its previous heights. So many companies now find it cheaper and safer to reduce these to a minimum. I think that even when we are all immunised in one way or another its hard to see things getting back to how they were, and thats a very good thing.

    Short haul is another thing – the industry still seems convinced it will get back to ‘normal’, judging by the number of discount hotel’s still under construction in my city seem to indicate. It is conceivable that the crash in the leasing and purchasing price in used aircraft could even create a whole new generation of super-cheap airlines. Going on casual conversations, I know many people who are chomping at the bit to finally have a trouble free trip abroad.

    One question though is whether for public health reasons governments may finally decide that encouraging all mass travel is a good thing – bearing in mind that many countries run a net loss in tourism so aren’t necessarily upset to see that industry contract. In Ireland, the first Covid outbreak was almost entirely due to upmarket school trips to ski resorts in north Italy/Austria back in late February/March. The current Covid strain in Ireland is primarily one that arose in Spain over the summer, presumably brought back either directly or indirectly via Spain by those people who insisted on travelling. This sort of analysis should give everyone pause to consider whether in the future encouraging travel for the sake of it is a good thing.

    But for now, I’m enjoying that when I go for a walk locally, the skies are mostly clear of contrails. Its a very welcome relief.

  4. BlakeFelix

    I’m team “whack them with a Carbon Tax, and subsidize them less”. Not that that is very likely in any near term, our elites seem inclined to steer for the iceberg, just to show that their boat is unsinkable…

  5. Hank Linderman

    I recently drove from Falls of Rough Kentucky to Los Angeles (an ideal way to spend the 5 days immediately after the election), guessing I used about 86 gallons – my vehicle got @28 mpg for the 2400 mile trip. How many gallons per passenger on a full flight or similar length? I have no idea if they are similar or wildly different.

    In any case, travel by air is here to stay until the Jackpot, so perhaps it’s time to go all-in on making synthetic kerosene from water, solar or other renewable power, and carbon pulled from the atmosphere. That would make air travel at least technically carbon neutral.




  6. Madison

    I can name four women in our circle of less and less likely to be friends, who fly from California to New York to see plays, have dinner and shop.
    Oh, and they all love Greta.

  7. Rod

    Would you have been open to riders for those legs?? or all the way??
    Would it have helped if Gas was Purchased for your consideration?
    What kind of screening would have made you comfortable with a rider? Would a liability disclaimer, or such, made considering a passenger more appealing.
    Could one of those infamous bottling houses in your great state subsidized your trip for product delivery??
    (let’s not anchor the imagination with lagal realities at the moment)
    I hitched to San Diego from Kent Oh after Army ETS, twice-in different years, in less than 80 hrs both times.

    IOWs Hank–can we skin this Cat a different way??
    askin’ for——–myself

    1. Hank Linderman

      In non-COVID time, sure – although I was staying with friends along the way for this trip. My one night in a hotel included my room window having a bullet hole in it.

      I suppose having negative COVID tests for fellow travelers might have worked, but the ones I took when I got to LA were “30% false negative” – which is why I had to have 2, spaced 72 hours apart.


  8. Synoia

    Me, I am guilty.

    I estimate I’ve done over 3 Million miles on planes. I’ve been flying since 1950.

    For 18 months in the ’90s I was commuting from Dallas to Vancouver, weekly.

  9. Kurt Sperry

    The only truly frequent flyers I’ve known personally have been business travelers who travel by air, often several times every week, as part of their jobs. Maybe remote working can apply, but maybe to be an effective sales person (which most of these people have been), you have to pitch the sale face-to-face.

    1. Rod

      My Congressman and both my Senators fly back and fourth weekly with my money. Our money.
      Let an example of reform start there.

  10. jpr


    “It has always been a myth promoted by the airline industry that flying is for everyone – regular flying has certainly in my lifetime gone from a luxury for the well off…”

    I remember a friend who used to work in Marketing for American Airlines in the 70s (under the legendary Bob Crandall) and in those days “Flight Benefits” were pretty generous. One time she and her husband qualified for a flight at the airport but the catch was that only First Class seats were available. Her husband frantically searched for a tie to buy at the airport stores because you couldn’t travel First Class without a jacket and tie in those days. The upshot was that they missed the flight because no tie, no service! She was a Marketing/PR person, so she might have had a tendency toward embellishing stories, but yes people forget that “jet set” used to stand for something at one time.

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