Story at a glance

  • Research shows the airline industry is responsible for about 5 percent of man-made global warming.
  • A new study found that just 1 percent of the world’s population contribute to 50 percent of airline emissions.
  • The findings come as air travel has slowed due to the coronavirus pandemic and is poised to pick back up.

With a potential coronavirus vaccine in sight and after almost a year in quarantine, cabin-fevered Americans are looking forward to getting out and traveling again. But the environment — which has been thriving in the absence of regular levels of human activity — will pay the price.

In fact, while carbon dioxide emissions dropped by unprecedented levels in the first half of 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions, by July 2020, when lockdown measures were lifted, most economies resumed their usual levels of CO2 emissions. And if air travel bounces back to pre-pandemic levels or higher, the resulting emissions will be responsible for almost 5 percent of man-made global warming


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While completely abandoning air travel might not be feasible, a new study suggests that there is one way to make a significant dent in emissions: by looking at who’s responsible. In 2018, just about 11 percent of the world's population travelled by air, with at most 4 percent traveling internationally, according to the report published in Global Environmental Change this month. The most frequent fliers among those, at most 1 percent of the world's population, account for more than half the total emissions from passenger air travel. 

“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,”  Stefan Gössling at Linnaeus University in Sweden, who led the new study, 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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While military travel accounts for 8 percent of global aviation fuel use, passengers on commercial flights are still responsible for 71 percent (their luggage accounts for about 17 percent) and private flights account for the remaining 4 percent. 

So who and where are these passengers? The study found that these tend to be high-income fliers, for one. Geographically, nearly half of global flights were taken in North America or Europe, even though those continents combined make up less than a quarter of the world's population.  

“The benefits of aviation are more inequitably shared across the world than probably any other major emission source,” Dan Rutherford, an expert at the International Council on Clean Transportation, told the Guardian. “So there’s a clear risk that the special treatment enjoyed by airlines just protects the economic interests of the globally wealthy.”


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Published on Nov 18, 2020