If we are to make rapid progress in reducing carbon emissions, and do so in an equitable way, does everybody need to give up flying?

No, not at all – because most people don’t fly anyway, and have never flown. And among those privileged enough to fly, only a small minority fly often.

If most people gave up flying that would have little impact on emissions – because most people fly seldom or never.

Yet major carbon emissions reductions need to happen within the next several years. That’s much faster than any revolutionary new aviation technologies can be developed, let alone rolled out on a large scale. The way to dramatically and quickly reduce aviation emissions is as simple as it is obvious: the small minority of people who fly frequently should give up most of their airline journeys.

We can see clearly where rapid progress might be made when we recognize the tight correlation between global wealth control and global emissions.

On a global scale, and also within most individual countries, both income and wealth is dramatically skewed in favour of a small percentage of the population.

In the same fashion, carbon dioxide emissions are dramatically skewed, as an overwhelming share of the emissions causing the climate crisis are due to the lifestyles of a small proportion of the population.

A relatively affluent minority of the world’s population takes nearly all of the world’s aviation journeys, and within that minority, a small percentage of people take by far the most flights.

Within that wealthiest and most polluting sliver of the world’s population, flying typically accounts for the biggest share of their generally outsize contributions to the climate crisis. Meaning, if they are to reduce their emissions to a level consistent with international climate accords, they will need to change their flying from a frequent, routine practice into a rare, exceptional practice, or cease from flying at all.

Yet in all the sectors that combine to steer our industrial societies, the people that have a significant share of influence typically belong to the frequent fliers club. That is true throughout the corporate world, in major news and entertainment media, in academia, in nearly every level of government in affluent countries, and among the socio-economic elites in non-affluent countries. In all these social sectors, it has become routine over the past 50 years to get on a plane and fly to some formerly distant place multiple times a year, whether for business or for leisure.

The preceding paragraphs outline a daunting list of topics to try to cover in one blog post. We’ll have help from some very useful graphs. Here goes ….

Follow the money

Since flying is an expensive habit, even in monetary terms, we would expect that most flying is done by the people with the most money. Here’s one way of visualizing who has the money:

Global income and wealth inequality, from the World Inequality Report 2022, by Lucas Chancel (lead author), Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, page 10.

As the chart above indicates, money is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of a small percentage of the global population – wealth is heavily skewed by class. And as the chart below indicates, money-making activities are overwhelmingly concentrated in some countries – wealth is heavily skewed by geography.

GDP per capita for selected regions and countries, 2010 – 2020, graph from Our World In Data based on World Bank data. The world average for 2020 was $16,608, while GDP per capita in wealthy countries was from 2.5 to about 4 times as high.

Ready for a surprise? You never woulda guessed, but carbon emissions are skewed in roughly the same ways.

Global Carbon Inequality, 2019, from the World Inequality Report 2022, by Lucas Chancel (lead author), Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, page 18.

Per capita emissions across the world, 2019, from the World Inequality Report 2022, by Lucas Chancel (lead author), Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, page 19.

The “Global Carbon Inequality” chart tells us that one half of global population are responsible for only a small share, 12%, of global warming emissions. The other half are responsible for 88% of global warming emissions. And just 10% of the population are responsible for nearly half the emissions.

The “Per capita emissions across the world” shows the dramatic variance in emission levels from various geographic regions. It might come as no surprise that both the top 10% and the middle 40% groups in North America leave most of their international rivals in a cloud of fossil fuel smoke, so to speak. Those who are modestly well off, or rich, in the US and Canada tend to live in big houses; drive, a lot, in big cars or “light trucks”; and travel by air frequently.

And in all areas of the world, the top 10% of emitters have per capita emissions far in excess of the middle 40% or lower 50% groups.

What does this mean for our collective hopes of slowing down the accelerating climate crisis? It means that most of the emission reductions must come from a relatively small share of the global population – particularly from the top 10% on a global scale, and to a lesser but still significant extent from the middle 40% within wealthy countries.

Consider this chart from the World Inequality Report.

Per capita emissions reduction requirements, US & France, from the World Inequality Report 2022, by Lucas Chancel (lead author), Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, page 128.

If we were to meet the emissions reduction targets set out for 2030 in the Paris Agreement in a fair and equitable way, the top 10% of people in the US would need to reduce their carbon footprints by 87%, and the middle 40% would need to reduce their carbon footprints by 54%. The lower 50% of the US population could actually increase their carbon footprints by 3% while being consistent with the Paris Agreement – if, that is, the upper 50% actually carried their fair share of the changes needed.

The story is much the same in France, with dramatic per capita emissions reductions needed from the top 50%.

For India and China, as shown below, the picture is significantly different.

Per capita emissions reduction requirements, India & China, from the World Inequality Report 2022, by Lucas Chancel (lead author), Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman, page 129.

In both India and China, the upper 10% would need to dramatically reduce their carbon footprints to be consistent with the Paris Agreement. However, both the middle 40% and the lower 50% in those countries could dramatically increase their carbon footprints in the next eight years, if the Paris Agreement targets were not only to be met, but met in an equitable way.

Imagine for a moment that the small minority of people with large carbon footprints, both globally and within countries, made a serious effort at reducing those footprints. What aspect of their lifestyles would be the most logical place to start?

Here, after what might have seemed like a long detour, we get back to the airport.

Panorama from inside Edinburgh air traffic control room, Oct 2013, photo by NATS – UK Air Traffic Control, licensed via CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, accessed on Flickr.

A high-level view

In spite of steep increases in aviation emissions in recent decades, direct emissions from aviation are still a small slice of overall global warming emissions. At the same time, among the world’s affluent classes, per capita emissions from aviation alone are much higher than the total per capita emissions of most people in much of the world.

The explanation lies here: only a small proportion of the world’s population flies at all, and among those, another small proportion takes most of the flights, the longest flights, and the flights that incur the largest per capita carbon footprints.

Even within high-income countries, less than half the population gets on a plane in a given year, according to a recent article in Global Environmental Change.

And on a global scale, Tom Otley reported in 2020,

“The research says that the share of the world’s population travelling by air in 2018 was just 11 per cent, with at most 4 per cent taking international flights.” (Business Traveller)

Can we conclude that 11 per cent of the people have an equal share of the aviation emissions? That would be deeply misleading, because most of those 11% take just the occasional flight, while a smaller number take many flights.

As reported in the article “A few frequent flyers ‘dominate air travel’” on BBC News, here’s how a small share of flyers in selected countries keep airports busy:

“In the UK, 70% of flights are made by a wealthy 15% of the population …. [I]n the US, just 12% of people take two-thirds of flights. … Canada: 22% of the population takes 73% of flights …. The Netherlands: 8% of people takes 42% of flights. … China: 5% of households takes 40% of flights. … India: 1% of households takes 45% of flights.”

But wait – there’s more! Stefan Gössling and Andreas Humpe explain in “The global scale, distribution and growth of aviation”, “The share of the fuel used by these [frequent] air travelers is likely higher, as more frequent fliers will more often travel business or first class ….”

Flying in more luxurious fashion comes at a huge environmental cost:

“The International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) (2014) estimates that the carbon footprint of flying business class, first class, or in a large suite is 5.3, 9.2 or 14.8 times larger than for flying in economy class.” (Gössling and Humpe)

Due to the frequency of their flights, plus the more luxurious seating accommodations often favoured by those who can afford many flights, about 10% of the most frequent fliers account for about half of all aviation emissions.

Gössling and Humpe refers to these most frequent fliers as “super emitters”, noting that “[S]uper emitters may contribute to global warming at a rate 225,000 times higher than the global poor” who have almost no carbon footprint.

To summarize: aviation accounts for a relatively small percentage of overall global warming emissions, because flying is a privilege enjoyed almost exclusively by a small percentage of the affluent classes. Yet among these classes, aviation results in a large share of personal carbon footprints, especially if flying is a regular occurrence.

Our World In Data states it starkly:

“Air travel dominates a frequent traveller’s individual contribution to climate change.”

The same report adds,

“The average rich person emits tonnes of CO2 from flying each year – this is equivalent to the total carbon footprint of tens or hundreds of people in many countries of the world.” (emphasis mine)

If we recall some figures from earlier in this post, those individuals in the US whose carbon footprints rank in the top 10% will need to reduce those footprints by 87%, for fair compliance with the Paris Agreement.

For most of those in the very-high-carbon-emissions bracket, a drastic reduction in flying will be a necessary, though not sufficient, lifestyle change in any future that includes climate justice.

• • •

Not so fast, frequent fliers might protest. Aren’t you overlooking the possibility, perhaps even the probability, that in the near future we will have a flourishing airline industry powered by clean electricity or clean hydrogen?

That’s too complicated a subject for a blog post that’s quite long enough already.

One recurring theme in this series has been the distinction between device-level changes and system-level changes. A speedy, safe, ocean-jumping airliner that burns no fossil fuel, if such an airliner were to exist, would be a great example of a device-level change.

I don’t expect to see such an airliner making commercially-viable trips within my lifetime. I’ll explain that skepticism in the next installment of this series on transportation.


Photo at top of page: Airbus airliners lined up at Chengdu, November 2015; photo by L.G. Liao, accessed at Wikimedia Commons.