“Super Emitters” to Blame for Half of Aviation Industry’s Carbon Emissions

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for Our Daily Planet

by Natasha Lasky, ODP Contributing Writer 

The aviation industry is a major contributor to climate change — it was responsible for 2.5% of global carbon emissions, and in 2018, the total pollutants from commercial aviation drove about 5% of warming globally

But the majority of this pollution is the result of frequent-flying “super emitters.” A recent study published in the journal Global Environmental Change showed that these fliers represent just 1% of the globe’s population, but caused half of aviation’s carbon emissions in 2018. 

Why This Matters: This study provides more evidence that the richest 1% of the world’s population are responsible for more than twice the amount of carbon pollution of the 3.1 billion people in the poorest half. The wealthy group of “super-emitters” described in this study traveled 35,000 miles a year. People who can afford to fly frequently had an outsized impact on a climate crisis that affects the entire world, particularly those in developing countries.

Just 11% of the world’s population took a flight in 2018 and only 4% flew abroad. US air passengers left the biggest carbon footprint, emitting more than that of the next 10 countries combined, including the UK, Japan, Germany, and Australia.

Dan Rutherford, of the International Council on Clean Transportation, told the Guardian:

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

Rethinking the Aviation Industry: The coronavirus pandemic caused a 50% drop in commercial airplane passengers, which the authors of the study said could be a great opportunity to change the aviation industry to favor equity and sustainability. They recommended putting green conditions on aviation industry bailouts, that didn’t ultimately end up being adopted by EU authorities. 

The researchers estimated that the cost of the climate damage caused by aviation’s emissions was $100 billion in 2018, and they argue that the wealthiest should pay for the damage. Some argue that frequent fliers should have to pay more for flights, discouraging them from flying, but others think that high prices will not deter wealthy jet-setters. 

Carbon-Free Jet Fuel? Air travel is difficult to decarbonize and while airlines have worked to bring cleaner fuels into their mix, sustainable fuel sources are difficult to scale. As the Guardian explained: airline executives hope a combination of sustainable fuels, offsetting and improving flight paths can play a part in reducing aviation’s footprint until, if ever, carbon-free flying becomes a viable technological and commercial reality.

  •  For now, the best long-term hope for the airline industry appears to be electric planes.

As Stefan Gössling, and author of the study from Sweden’s Linnaeus University, told the Guardian: “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.”


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