New study shows that 1% of people cause half of global aviation emissions

A study by Linnaeus University in Sweden found that frequent-flyers who represent just 1% of the world’s population caused 50% of aviation’s carbon emissions in 2018. They also said that only 11% of the world’s population took a flight in 2018; of those only 4% flew abroad rather than within their own country. The carbon emissions of US air passengers are bigger than those of the next 10 countries combined, including the UK, Japan, Germany and Australia. The lead author of the study, Stefan Gössling, said: “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.”  Aviation in 2019 emitted around 1 billion tonnes of CO2 and benefited from a $100bn (£75bn) subsidy by not paying for the climate damage they cause, with most not paying fuel duty, or VAT in Europe. In a typical year, like 2018, 48% of people in the UK did not fly at all; the figure was 53% in the US; and 65% in Germany. Other data shows in the UK that about 70% of flights are taken by 15% of the people. Also just 1% of English residents are responsible for nearly 20% of all flights abroad; and the 10% most frequent flyers in England took more than 50% of all international flights in 2018.


1% of people cause half of global aviation emissions – study

Exclusive: Researchers say Covid-19 hiatus is moment to tackle elite ‘super emitters’

By  Environment editor  @dpcarrington

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.

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.

“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.”

The frequent flyers identified in the study travelled about 35,000 miles (56,000km) a year, Gössling said, equivalent to three long-haul flights a year, one short-haul flight per month, or some combination of the two.

On average, North Americans flew 50 times more kilometres than Africans in 2018, 10 times more than those in the Asia-Pacific region and 7.5 times more than Latin Americans. Europeans and those in the Middle East flew 25 times further than Africans and five times more than Asians.

The data also showed a large growth in international flights from 1990-2017, with numbers tripling from Australia and doubling from the UK.

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.”

The figure for the social cost of carbon emissions was actually a bit conservative, Rutherford said.

levy on frequent fliers is one proposal to discourage flights. “Somebody will need to pay to decarbonise flight – why shouldn’t it be frequent flyers?” Rutherford said. But Gössling was less enthusiastic, pointing out that frequent flyers were usually very wealthy, meaning higher ticket prices may not deter them.

“Perhaps a more productive way is to ask airlines to increase the share of [low carbon] synthetic fuels mix every year up to 100% by 2050,” Gössling said. A mandate for sustainable aviation fuel starting in 2025 is backed by some in the industry.

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.”

He stopped flying for holidays in 1995 and more recently stopped going to academic conferences and taking long-haul flights. “I’m not saying I’ll never fly again. But if I can avoid it, I really, really try,” Gössling said.


See also

1% of English residents take one-fifth of overseas flights, survey shows

FoI request to DfT reveals 10% most frequent flyers took more than half of flights abroad in 2018
The figures, published in a Department for Transport survey, also reveal that the 10% most frequent flyers in England took more than half of all international flights in 2018. However, 48% of the population did not take a single flight abroad in the last year.

The new findings bolster calls for a frequent flyer levy, a proposal under which each citizen would be allowed one tax-free flight per year but would pay progressively higher taxes on each additional flight taken.

The revelations follow a new report from the Committee on Climate Change (CCC), the government’s official adviser, which urged ministers to put tougher regulations on the international aviation and shipping sectors to keep the economy on track for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

Environmental activists said the new figures showed the UK could cut air traffic and emissions without affecting ordinary holidaymakers.

“What we need to do is target a minority of problem flyers and stop them from taking so many flights,” he added.

The findings are based on responses from more than 15,000 English residents who participated in the 2018 National Transport Survey and were revealed to the Guardian following a Freedom of Information request.

The aviation sector accounted for about 7% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2017. It is projected to be the single biggest source of emissions in the UK by 2050 due to the steadily increasing demand for flights.

John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, also endorsed the idea of a frequent flyer levy. “It makes it easier for families to fly once a year, but the escalating tax on further flights means that the people responsible for most of the problem are the ones who end up paying most of the tax – or, ideally, flying a lot less,” he said.

Siân Berry, co-leader of the Green party, said the new data showed the UK could cut its air traffic without hitting those who can least afford it. “It’s about people who fly again and again and again.”

“A progressive tax on the most frequent flyers is a fair policy that most people would come behind if the government put it forward,” she added.

Tuesday’s CCC report suggested a number of policy options to curb demand for flights, including a frequent flyer levy, and said technological improvements alone could not be the solution to the growing emissions problem. There is currently no country in which travellers pay an escalating levy on each flight they take in a year.

Emissions from international aviation are not currently included in national carbon budgets such as the UK’s but instead managed by a dedicated UN agency – the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). However, some have said the body is too secretive and close to industry to take on the major polluters.

The CCC said international air travel should be included in the UK’s climate strategy like any other business sector.

“Not having [international aviation] in the target is a barrier to putting in place good policies to get us on the trajectory to be net-zero overall,” said Chris Stark, the CCC’s chief executive.

He argued that the UK should take a leading role in cutting emissions from the sector, rather than wait for more comprehensive international agreements to be struck.

“There should be no barrier to bringing aviation emissions into the carbon budgets and then putting in place a set of policies that at some stage in the future will be compatible with those international agreements,” Stark said.

A DfT spokesperson said: “Tackling climate change is one of the most urgent and pressing challenges that we face. Which is why this government has set a bold 2050 net zero target for the UK and a greener aviation industry will play a key role in that.

“The government is funding the future of flight and have announced £5m in funding for new technologies like electric and autonomous aircraft to help us tackle climate change. We are working with our partners to ensure the government takes a leading role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the aviation sector.”  



Statistical Release 23 July 2014 – by the DfT

Public experiences of and attitudes
towards air travel: 2014

The figure of 70% of flights taken by 15% of the UK population is from  analysis of Table ATT0601, Public experience of and attitudes towards air travel, DfT Statistical release, July 2014 ↩