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.