Half of the world's aviation emissions is caused by just 1% of the population, study finds

Amy Woodyatt, CNNPublished 17th November 2020
An airplane takes off from Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia, September 3, 2018, during the Labor Day holiday, the traditional end of the summer vacation season. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP)        (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
(CNN) — Frequent fliers representing just 1% of the world's population accounted for more than half of total aviation emissions from passenger air travel in 2018, a new study says.
Experts estimated that 11% of the world's population traveled by air in 2018, with up to 4% of people traveling abroad.
But just 1% of the world's population were responsible for more than half of total emissions from passenger aviation, researchers found.
Aviation accounts for at least 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions, and the figure is expected to increase.
The United Nations' International Civil Aviation Organization has said it expects emissions from international aviation to increase between two and four times by 2050.
Carbon dioxide is not the only way aviation affects the climate -- air travel also contributes other emissions, including nitrogen oxides and contrails, which have negative impacts on health and the environment.
"Contrary to the narrative that airlines are planting that virtually everyone is flying, we are able to show that it's actually just a minority of the world's population," Stefan Gössling, a professor at Sweden's Linnaeus University who led the study, told CNN.
Gössling said that, within the small group of those flying, there was a smaller group of "super emitters," who could be categorized as those who fly more than 55,000 kilometers (about 34,000 miles) per year, those who fly once a month, or take three long haul flights annually.
The paper's authors found that, though these "high emitters" live in countries around the world, the US, Luxemburg, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and Canada were home to the greatest number of these wealthy individuals.
"There is a distribution problem that nobody wants to raise -- we have these super wealthy individuals that are concentrated in these countries," Gössling said.
"In a world that seeks to reduce carbon emissions, we need to look at those emitting the most," Gössling said, adding that current strategies by the aviation sector, including carbon offsetting and development of new fuels, are not effective enough in reducing fossil fuel consumption.
Even if the price of fuel was increased, or a tax on fuel introduced, Gössling told CNN that this would be unlikely to change the behaviors of the super wealthy, who could absorb such a cost with relative ease.
The research findings, published in the Global Environmental Change journal this month, "highlight the lack of and need for aviation climate governance -- possibly at national and regional scales -- to tackle emissions from aviation," researchers said.
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded in a landmark report that we only have until 2030 to drastically reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and prevent the planet from reaching the crucial threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Global net emissions of carbon dioxide would need to fall by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 and reach "net zero" around 2050 in order to keep the warming around 1.5 degrees C.
"It seems difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the UN climate goals without addressing the super emitters," Gössling added.