If airlines were a country they’d be one of the world’s top 10 greenhouse gas emitters

ariplane

(Unsplash, 2019)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Charlotte Edmond, Formative Content


Greta Thunberg’s mum has stopped taking flights. The teenage climate activist’s mother is one of a growing number of Swedes keeping their feet on the ground in a bid to help the planet. They even a name for it – flygskam, or flight shame.

And there’s a reason the movement is gathering momentum: the aviation industry is one of the biggest contributors of greenhouse gases in the world. In fact, if global aviation was a country, it would be among the 10 biggest emitters. That puts it ahead of nations like Brazil, Mexico, and the UK.

And the problem’s getting worse – emissions from flights are one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gases. The International Civil Aviation Organization forecasts that aviation emissions could grow by 300-700% by 2050.

Image: IEA/Carbon Brief

Clouds in the sky

A return trip from London to New York is about equivalent to someone heating their home for a year, in terms of the emissions generated. And that rapidly adds up. Figures from the International Air Transport Association project plane passenger numbers will double within two decades – that’s 8.2bn people flying each year.

A significant amount of this growth comes from Asia, where a burgeoning middle class is driving a booming tourism industry.

Image: World Bank

The top five most airborne countries now include three Asian nations – China, India and Japan – with China rapidly gaining on the US as the country with the most air passengers.

So what’s being done?

Planes are becoming more efficient. Industry body ATAG says the new Airbus A380, the world’s largest passenger plane, has fuel efficiency comparable to that of a modern compact car.

And alternative fuels such as biofuels – which can be made from algae or waste byproducts – are being investigated as a viable way of cutting emissions. Other innovations, like retrofitting winglets – devices on wing tips to reduce drag – have also helped cut CO2 output.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

Moving to clean energy is key to combatting climate change, yet in the past five years, the energy transition has stagnated. Energy consumption and production contribute to two-thirds of global emissions, and 81% of the global energy system is still based on fossil fuels, the same percentage as 30 years ago.

Effective policies, private-sector action and public-private cooperation are needed to create a more inclusive, sustainable, affordable and secure global energy system.

Benchmarking progress is essential to a successful transition. The World Economic Forum’s Energy Transition Index, which ranks 115 economies on how well they balance energy security and access with environmental sustainability and affordability, shows that the biggest challenge facing energy transition is the lack of readiness among the world’s largest emitters, including US, China, India and Russia. The 10 countries that score the highest in terms of readiness account for only 2.6% of global annual emissions.

To future-proof the global energy system, the Forum’s Shaping the Future of Energy initiative is working with projects including the Partnering for Sustainable Energy Innovation, the Future of Electricity, the Global Battery Alliance and Scaling Renewable Energy to encourage and enable innovative energy investments, technologies and solutions.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

The International Civil Aviation Organization has set up CORSIA, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, to try to measure the CO2 output from the industry and stabilize it at 2020 levels.

Image: Environmental Defense Fund

Some airlines offer passengers the chance to offset their emissions. Others, like KLM, are even encouraging people to fly less.

The flight-shaming trend is breaking into the consciousness of some Europeans, and threats from climate action groups such as Extinction Rebellion to close down London Heathrow with drones may force it onto the agendas of others.

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