Just 1% Of People Account For 50% Of Aviation Emissions

Several readers have sent along articles covering the claim that 1% of people are responsible for 50% of commercial aviation emissions. And this is not at all surprising, since only about 1 in 9 people in the world even fly at all in a given year. Air travel is far more common in North America and Europe than in Africa, for instance, though Africa’s aviation sector is growing.

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 35,000 miles (56,000 kilometers) that year.

But to put things in context, aviation accounts for 1.9% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. That’s split roughly evenly between commercial air travel and cargo.

  • So if 1% of people are responsible for 50% of commercial airline emissions,

  • then 1% of people contribute to half a percent of emissions through aviation.

And that’s not nearly as dramatic a headline. (There are estimates placing total airline emissions as at 3.5% of world emissions, so 50% of the airline component would be 0.875%, so the result isn’t sensitive to cherry-picking estimates.)

The goal of those who led the study is to limit air travel,

“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.”

Mandates and restrictions are needed, by the way, not ‘merely’ more taxes on aviation because “frequent flyers were usually very wealthy, meaning higher ticket prices may not deter them.” Of course making flying more expensive would make it solely the province of the wealthy.

There are people who see the solution to pressing environmental challenges as eliminating the human activities that lead to those challenges. If we stopped flying, stopped using fossil fuels altogether, stopped transporting goods and services around the world we could contain our damage to the planet. That would mean the poorest places in the world are destined to stay that way, because it’s industrialization that increases emissions.

I doubt that approach is politically feasible, either in the developing world (because people will demand better living standards) or the developed one (where even getting people to wear masks is difficult, living with less at great cost seems impossible).

But it’s also not the best path that we have, either. If we’ve going to save the planet it’s going to have to be through better technology and human ingenuity. If we can develop vaccines to a novel virus, and demonstrate their efficacy, in less than a year then we can figure out how to remove harmful gasses from the environment or figure out how to avoid emitting them into the environment in the first place even as we continue to travel and to produce.

Airlines are taking this challenge seriously. Fuel efficiency is in their financial interest. Some have toyed with biofuels but the technology is currently too resource-intensive to scale. Newer planes are far more efficient than older ones, and newer engine technologies are too and increasingly so. There’s enough long tail risk with the environment that this is something to take seriously, but shutting down the world economy, and becoming a less well-connected world, isn’t the path towards improving the world either.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Your title says 1% of *flyers*, but then you go on to say 1% of *people*…. Misleading title.

  2. The title seems off. Shouldn’t it be “Just 1% Of PEOPLE Account For 50% Of Aviation Emissions?”

  3. Thanks for a serious discussion of this Gary.

    As someone that can clearly see the incredible power of markets, the solution is simple: carbon taxation.

    The small portion of the population emitting a huge amount of carbon should pay for that damage, but putting a reasonable price on pollution instead of making it free (current situation) would create a virtuous cycle of compelling the development of new technologies that will allow the entire world a high standard of living without destroying the planet.

  4. If they only counted pilots and FA’s, the only people actually aboard every single flight, a climate militant could even argue a tiny fraction of 1% of humans are “super-emitters” causing 100% of all aviation emissions. Gary, thanks for shedding the light of reason on silly, pointless climate militant arguments against aviation

  5. “If we’ve going to save the planet it’s going to have to be through better technology and human ingenuity.” With fission-based nuclear power, practical at scale by the 1950s, a massive amount of emissions over the last 50 years could have bee prevented. France went from 0% nuclear to 70% nuclear in 15 years.

    The technology for huge emissions reductions has existed in transport (mass transit, HSR), electricity (nuclear), and agriculture (preventing deforestation, cover crops, ending subsidies, etc.) for decades but little has been done. Gary, what makes you think we will adopt new technologies widely? Even Tesla/EV adoption in the US has been very weak, not nearly enough to move the needle despite heroic efforts in my opinion.

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