The Future of Air Travel

Air travel - M. Becker, picture-alliance.jpg

Deutsche Welle has today published a fascinating article on the environmental impact of air travel—fascinating because it lays bare the class politics of reducing aviation-related CO2 emissions. Citing data from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the piece notes that the number of air passengers has been increasing every year since the Great Recession, but that a global elite as small as 3 percent is doing most of the flying (and that only 18 percent of the world's citizens have ever taken a commercial flight). Sadly, the piece does not break out the data on the travel patterns of the government officials, green lobbyists and eco-activists like Leonardo DiCaprioAl Gore and Richard Branson who regularly attend the world's climate-change summits in the tens of thousands.

Even so, the dilemma is by now widely known. According to this carbon-footprint calculator, if one flies economy from North America to Europe and back, just once, one exceeds "the maximum amount of CO2 a person should produce per year in order to halt climate change." As the DW piece laments, it isn't easy being green. "Even a serious environmentalist who eats vegan, heats using solar power and rides a bike to work, but who still take the occasional flight, wouldn't look very green at all. Just two hypothetical short-haul return flights and one long-haul round-trip in a given year would outweigh otherwise exemplary behavior."

So what to do?

International Air Transport Association (IATA) official Chris Goater tells DW that his industry is working to reduce its carbon footprint via offsets, more efficient planes, heavier use of biofuels and better route efficiency. But Swedish climate professor Stefan Gössling and Greenpeace director Daniel Mittler, also interviewed by DW, don't buy it. They call for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and a tax on aviation. They also want the airlines to stop selling consumers their jet-setting lifestyle fantasies. "We need to move towards a more sharing and caring way of living on this planet," says Mittler. "Aviation is a symbol of the kind of consumption that we need to leave behind."

Apart from the insufferable hypocrisy of the global green jet-set telling the world's citizens to stay home, the DW  piece illuminates two key questions that lie at the heart of the aviation-climate nexus: are affluent Westerners who have been advantaged by the miracle of air travel for generations really prepared to tell the ranks of the rising middle classes in the developing world that they are too late to join the party (or that some Paris-styled aviation tax does not punish them disproportionately)? And in a globalized world of mass migration—where affordable air travel allows people to live, work, trade, study, and vacation over vast distances and in ever-increasing numbers—is it likely that humanity will voluntarily forfeit what it has come to regard as its technological birthright?