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One percent of the world’s population accounts for more than half of flying emissions

Airplane in sky

One percent of the world’s population accounts for more than half of the carbon dioxide emissions from passenger air travel. Thus, there is good reason to view air travel in a new light. It is actually an elitist activity, rather than what the aviation industry would like us to believe – that everyone flies. This is claimed by Stefan Gössling at Lund University and Linnaeus University in a new article, published in Global Environment Change.

Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, global air transport demand was expected to triple in the next 30 years. When the pandemic hit last spring, global air travel was reduced by up to 80 percent. This gave researchers Stefan Gössling and Andreas Humpe an opportunity to study more closely what the scale, distribution and growth of aviation looked like until 2018.

The results are presented in a scientific article published in Global Environmental Change. The two researchers analyse, among other things, who is flying, what the emissions look like, and how the pandemic has affected aviation due to a reduction in demand.

“There is good reason to also discuss the consequences of climate change from an expected post-corona volume growth”, says Stefan Gössling, professor of tourism studies at Lund University and Linnaeus University.

In the article, industry statistics, data provided by supranational organisations, and national surveys are evaluated. The result is a pre-pandemic understanding of the demand for global, regional, national and individual air transport.

The results show that only 11 percent of the world’s population used air transport in 2018, of which slightly less than 4 percent were made up of international flights.

When looking only at industrialised countries, almost half of the inhabitants use air transport on an annual basis. In Germany this number is even lower, around 35 percent.

“The assumptions we have made based on the numbers we have been looking at are conservative and many countries do not have this type of statistics. Significantly fewer than half of all people in industrialised countries use air transport on a yearly basis”, Gössling explains.

However, the statistics show that a very small share of air travelers contribute greatly to emissions. The most frequent fliers constitute only 1 percent of the world’s population, but together they account for more than half of the total carbon dioxide emission from passenger air travel.

As you might expect, the biggest scapegoats are the individual users of private aircrafts. They contribute to emissions of up to 7,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide every year. The corresponding figure for the average traveler is 130 kilos of carbon dioxide per year.

“The findings are specifically relevant since a large share of global aviation emissions are not covered by policy agreements to reduce emissions, which is the case for the national emissions", Gössling concludes.

Stefan Gössling is professor of Tourism Studies at Linnaeus University and professor of Human Ecology at Lund University. His research interests include, among other things, tourism and climate change, with focus on mobility and environmental impact.

Andreas Humpe is professor of Mathematics and Finance at Munich University of Applied Sciences.

Publication in Global Environmental Change: “The global scale, distribution and growth of aviation: Implications for climate change”

Text: Ulrika Bergström, Linneaus University