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Should we fly less? The inequality of air travel

9th March, 2023

Weeks before announcing he was stepping down from his position as CEO at Heathrow Airport, John Holland-Kaye told the World Economic Forum at Davos that cutting back on air travel was a “Northern European indulgence”. It’s a strange accusation, but one that highlights the complex relationship between entitlement, privilege and responsibility within the debate about how to reach global decarbonisation. We know that the aviation industry needs to massively decrease its emissions. We know, based on current evidence, that technological solutions majorly lag behind our timeline to decarbonise. We know that cutting back on flying will be essential in slowing down the sector’s emissions till those technology solutions are available. But the question remains; who gets to fly and who should fly less?

Holland-Kaye’s words stand in direct opposition to movements such as ‘flygskam’ or ‘flight shame’, which have brought together people who want to cut back on flying on the basis of their moral commitment to act on climate change. At the heart of these movements, and the decision by activists such as Greta Thunberg not to fly, is the idea that choices made at an individual level will eventually lead to policy changes at a wider level. With flying being the quickest and cheapest way to grow your carbon footprint, many who avoid flying for environmental reasons hope that their actions – and the actions of like-minded individuals – will push governments to rethink their approach to encouraging increased demand for air travel. Naturally, this movement has not been received with great enthusiasm by those within the aviation industry.

According to John Holland-Kaye, there is no need to cut back on flying. Instead, he proposes a transition to Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) to compensate for increased aviation emissions. Speaking at Davos, he said, “we can choose not to travel in this part of the world but that is not going to affect travel in Asia, India and Africa”. In other words, why bother reducing your flying now, when demand in other countries is just starting to take off? Holland-Kaye implicitly pushes the idea that growth is inevitable, and therefore that we should adopt a certain level of fatalism when it comes to controlling demand.

Yet as he doubtless knows, the aviation industry’s emissions were, until the pandemic, the fastest growing compared to any other transport mode, with aviation emissions globally having grown 4-5% every year from 2010 to 2018 to reach their highest ever level until the Covid pandemic hit. Left unchecked, aviation emissions could triple by 2050

The airline industry continues to push SAF as a viable way to meet its environmental targets while simultaneously justifying continual growth. However, it is highly unlikely that SAF will be available in large enough quantities in the next few decades to compensate for this growth. Although crop-based SAFs are not being considered by the Government, a recent paper, published by the Royal Society, highlights the challenges of scaling: an estimated third of all UK agricultural land would be needed to produce enough bio-fuel to meet UK jet-fuel demand. 

This is clearly prohibitive. In fact, even the UK Government’s techno-optimistic ‘Jet Zero’ plan, estimates that SAF will deliver only a 17% reduction in emissions by 2050. The introduction of SAF isn’t going to be enough to guarantee the aviation industry meets its own emission reduction goals and certainly does not justify unmitigated growth. 

The second issue with Holland-Kaye’s argument is the implication that if people in Northern Europe choose to fly less that will have little impact on global aviation emissions and that flying less is somehow indulgent. But look at this another way: on a global scale, surely flying itself – and certainly frequent flying – is an indulgence of high-income countries, most typically those in the Global North. 

Stefan Gössling and Andreas Humpe have studied the global inequality of air travel demand. From their research, we can see that in 2018, the proportion of people from high-income countries that fly at least once a year was 40%, compared to only 0.7% of people from low-income countries. 

Holland-Kaye claims that avoiding air travel is “not a solution to climate change”. He is wrong. Cutting flying will cut emissions, and it is clear from the above graph that behaviour change within high-income countries would bring the biggest reduction in emissions.