1% ‘super emitters’ responsible for over 50% of aviation emissions

Just 1% of the world’s population accounts for more than half of the CO2 emissions from passenger air travel, according to a new study. The lead researcher says flying is ‘an elite activity’ in which very rich participants are given a $100 billion subsidy through not paying for the 1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions they cause.

Aviation has largely escaped climate change measures dating back to the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, when individual countries were asked to approach the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) for measures to address the climate impact of air transport. Since then, ICAO has ruled out almost all possible measures, and when the EU agreed a global emissions trading scheme for aviation to start in 2012, it was forced by global pressure to limit it to intra-EU flights only. The result has been that aviation climate emissions have continued to grow, while other sectors have reduced their climate impact.

This year’s 80% reduction in air traffic caused by the coronavirus pandemic has allowed two academics – a tourism and human ecology professor Stefan Gössling from Stockholm and mathematics and finance professor Andreas Humpe from Munich – to examine the scale, distribution and growth of aviation up to the end of 2018. Their findings appear in an open access article in the journal Global Environmental Change.

The most eye-catching finding is that 1% of the world’s population is responsible for more than half the global climate emissions from aviation. This comes about through a small group of wealthy frequent flyers who travel about 56,000km a year; people who Gössling described to the Guardian as ‘super emitters’. 

But the research also reveals that most people simply do not fly at all – Gössling and Humpe found only 11% of the world’s population used air transport in 2018, of which less than 4% was made up of international flights. Even in the developed world, the percentage of people who never fly is large, such as 65% in Germany, 48% in the UK and 53% in the USA.

The aviation industry rejects the idea that flying is elitist these days, saying air travel is ‘a necessity for millions’. But Gössling says his findings show that is not true. ‘When we talk about aviation, we’re really talking about an elite activity,’ he said at an event organised by T&E and Carbon Market Watch. ‘Poor families don’t fly in the first place.

‘Much air travel is induced. If you slimmed the aviation sector by a significant margin, people probably would not even feel it [since] it’s not more people flying because of cheap prices, it’s the same people flying more.’

The biggest culprits are users of private planes, who cause emissions of up to 7,500t of CO2 every year. The average traveller emits 130kg per year.

T&E’s aviation director Andrew Murphy said: ‘This research confirms what we have always said about the need to tackle frequent flying, but it specifically highlights inequality. There is a massive subsidy going towards the richest people, and the rest of us pick up the bill through taxes and the cost of climate change. 

‘The problem with aviation is not the families who take one flight a year for a special holiday but the few people who seem to treat planes like taxis, in particular those who make extensive use of private aircraft.’