If we can’t stop flying, can we at least stop lying … to ourselves

“Flying is only 2% of global emissions, so it’s ok to fly.” That’s what I heard from a neighbouring table in a restaurant. I didn’t have the heart to lob in a comment “Yeh, but I bet it’s not 2% of your emissions!”

The Oxfam Extreme Carbon Inequality report [1] showed that top 10% by income were responsible for 50% of emissions and bottom 50% were responsible for just 10%, so averages such as that 2% figure can conceal some important truths and not a lttle of moral hazard.

The significant warming that the planet is experiencing [2] is thereby much more of an issue currently of high consumption in the West than population growth in the global south.

We can quite easily get a feel for the numbers.

Let’s start with averages

The world emits about 40 billion (giga) tonnes of carbon dioxide a year (or 40 GtCO₂/yr) from burning fossil fuels [3].

We have a world population of about 8 billion, so the average CO₂ emissions per person is 5 tonnes of CO₂ a year (5 tCO₂/yr).

2% of that figures gives 0.1 tCO₂/yr.

Time to relax?

So what about the average flyer?

2% of 40 GtCO₂/yr is 0.8 GtCO₂/yr, or 800 MtCO₂/yr.

A Smithsonian Mag article [4] estimated that only 6% of the world’s population flew in any one year; 6% of 8 billion is 480 million people.

If we share out the 800 MtCO₂/yr of flying emissions amongst those 480 million in any year, we get 1.7 tCO₂/yr per person. Given that a UK to Madrid flight is estimated as 265 kgCO₂ (0.265 tCO₂) [5], it shows the impact that longer journeys and frequent flyers are having in pushing the average up to over 6 times this number.

Needless to say 1.7 tCO₂/yr is nearly 40% of the world’s average per person total footprint, not a comforting 2%.

What about the UK?

Pre-COVID figures suggest that nearly 50% of UK citizens fly at least once per year, and flying accounts for 7% of the UK’s emissions. However, 1% of UK residents were found to be responsible for 20% of overseas flights [6].

It gets worse

The emissions from flying become stacked higher and higher with increasing income. The top 1% globally emit a staggering 7,500 tCO₂/yr, and are responsible for half of the world’s flying emissions [7].

The takeaway message

Let’s not kid ourselves that our flying emissions are ‘small’. In the UK they are on average 7% of our CO₂ emissions but the actual emissions increases in line with our consumption, which tends to correlate with incomes.

The case for a fair system that does not penalise the least well off, and has an escalating frequent flyer levy, is now undeniable. It needs to be sufficient to disincentivise frequent flying. Whereas the incentives today are completely the opposite. Airlines reward frequent flyers with gold membership cards, priority boarding, deluxe lounges and streams of offers.

As more people in the world gain access to flying, and as the relatively easy-to-decarbonise sectors (like cars and heating) are dealt with, the percentage of emissions from flying – however you wish to measure it – will only grow.

I’m not going to tell anyone “don’t fly!”, how could I? When I was working as a consultant until my retirement in 2016 I was making 10 to 15 flights a year. I’m in no position to preach to anyone. But we have all been in denial about flying, myself included, for too long.

If we can’t stop flying, can we at least stop lying … to ourselves!

(c) Richard W. Erskine, August 2022.

References

  1. Extreme Carbon Inequality, Oxfam, https://www.oxfamamerica.org/explore/research-publications/extreme-carbon-inequality/
  2. IPCC, 2021: Summary for Policymakers. In: Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Masson-Delmotte, V., P. Zhai, A. Pirani, S.L. Connors, C. Péan, S. Berger, N. Caud, Y. Chen, L. Goldfarb, M.I. Gomis, M. Huang, K. Leitzell, E. Lonnoy, J.B.R. Matthews, T.K. Maycock, T. Waterfield, O. Yelekçi, R. Yu, and B. Zhou (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. 3−32, doi:10.1017/9781009157896.001.
  3. See Figure SPM.4(a) in Reference [2]. This does not include the contribution from other greenhouse gases that currently make a lower but still very significant contribution as shown in Figure SPM.2 in Reference [2].
  4. How Much of the World’s Population Has Flown in an Airplane?, Christine Negroni, 6th January 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/air-space-magazine/how-much-worlds-population-has-flown-airplane-180957719/
  5. Climate change: Should you fly, drive or take the train?, BBC, 24th August 2019, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-49349566
  6. 1% of English residents take one-fifth of overseas flights, survey shows, Niko Kommenda, 25th September 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/sep/25/1-of-english-residents-take-one-fifth-of-overseas-flights-survey-shows
  7. 1% ‘super emitters’ responsible for over 50% of aviation emissions, Andrew Murphy, Transport & Environment, 3rd December 2020, https://www.transportenvironment.org/discover/1-super-emitters-responsible-over-50-aviation-emissions/

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