It is easy to forget that it was devastating wildfires in Australia and Brazil that were dominating the news before Covid-19 hit the headlines. In 2020, we have seen the worst fires in history, a record-breaking hurricane season, more extinctions. And a pandemic. Talk of the tipping point and a sixth mass extinction was compounded in September when the UN’s Global Biodiversity Outlook report announced that the goals set a decade ago to reverse the destruction of biodiversity had failed.
But is isn’t all doom and gloom. Before the pandemic, there had been steps in the right direction. In the last 12 months, for example, the first two commercial electric planes have taken maiden flights. Improved fuel efficiency was reducing carbon emissions per passenger although the benefits were still outweighed by the increasing numbers of flights. Global emissions from aviation increased by 32% from 2013-2018 but the sudden shutdown of air travel allowed us a view of the world with next to no aircraft in the skies. The pandemic had inadvertently addressed the air pollution issue overnight, albeit temporarily. And the International Air Transport Association (IATA) predicts that demand for air travel won’t recover for three years at least – some say longer.
The Prime Minister’s new Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution promises to address energy, technology, nature and transport. Ending sales of new petrol and diesel cars and vans in the UK by 2030 was the leading story. However, the Ten Point Plan also supports the “difficult-to-decarbonise” industries such as aviation and shipping. The aim of the new Jet Zero Council is to deliver zero-emission flight by 2050. According to Our World in Data the latest findings break down aviation’s role in global emissions and climate change like this:
- 9% of greenhouse gas emissions, 2016
- 5% of CO2 emissions, 2018
- 5% of effective radiative forcing (a closer measure of warming), 2018
Radiative forcing is a change in the balance of solar and terrestrial radiation in Earth’s atmosphere. Aircrafts increase atmospheric radiative forcing by emitting gases and contrails, altering cloud formation, which contributes to climate change.
It may not sound a lot. Yet, a new study led by Stefan Gossling at Linnaeus University in Sweden revealed that in 2018 airlines produced a billion tonnes of CO2 (with an estimated $100 billion cost of climate damage). And this, they concluded, was down to only 11% of the world’s population who flew meaning half of aviation’s carbon emissions in 2018 were caused by 1% of the world’s population.
The research, published in the journal Global Environmental Change, found that large proportions of people do not fly at all each year. The carbon footprint of US air passengers is far higher than any other nation but 53% don’t fly. Dan Rutherford, shipping and aviation director at the International Council on Clean Tranportation (ICCT) estimates just 3% of the global population take regular flights. According to a Department for Transport survey, 48% of the people in the UK did not fly in 2018. Yet, more than half of all international flights in England were taken by 10% of frequent flyers.
The figures show that cutting air traffic would not affect the majority of travellers, only a tiny minority of “super emitters”, who contribute the vast majority of aviation’s carbon emissions.
On average, North Americans flew 50 times further than Africans in 2018 (25 times further for Europeans). It stands to reason that the wealthier nations have the most air travellers. Sadly, it is the developing world, especially those communities dependent on tourism, that are worst affected by the pandemic restrictions. The “should we fly” debate is further complicated when we consider the impact travel restrictions have on livelihoods and wildlife protection efforts in Africa, for example.