The cost of corporate travel? Just 1% of the world's population is responsible for up to half of harmful air travel emissions with frequent flyers delivering exponential impact to environment

19 November, 2020

Aviation is one of the most energy-intense forms of consumption, and has in the past been characterised by strong growth, with estimates that emissions have increased by a factor 6.8 between 1960 and 2018. Industry estimates prior to COVID-19 had suggested a further tripling between 2020 and 2050.

The scale of the issue has been put into perspective by a new research paper where co-author Professor Stefan Goessling, from Linnaeus University in Sweden, highlights “some individuals will produce more carbon emissions in a year than entire African villages or cities”. The paper, ‘The global scale, distribution and growth of aviation: Implications for climate change’, has been published in the Nov-2020 issue of scientific journal Global Environmental Change.

For those of us experiencing an extended hiatus from flying during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic it opens eyes to the real cost of travelling, something that we take granted. It is normal to jump on a couple of flights a day to support business needs, after all over 4.5 billion passenger journeys were made in 2019, but when you learn how little of the world’s population is actually travelling the burden of the environmental impact weighs more heavily.

We know that air traffic demand is not evenly distributed throughout the world, but the research finds some level of correlation between countries by income group. Comparing passenger numbers to population and wealth levels, the number of flights averaged over the population is 0.03 per person and year in low-income countries, 0.15 in lower middle- income countries, 0.49 in upper middle-income countries, and 2.02 in high income countries.

These results, regional demand and other factors have enabled the study’s authors to make some interesting conclusions on air travel, notably that only 11% of the world’s population travelled by air in 2018, with at most 4% taking international flights with that levels perhaps being as low as 2%. This total includes a large number of people who travel only once a year on their annual holiday, estimated at around a quarter of all travellers.

This means that a smaller number of travellers and just a small proportion of the population are responsible for aviation’s environmental impact. These so-called “super-emitters” flying as often as multiple times daily are the centre of the research and the area where the authors suggest a true change to the climate change issue can be found.

“It may seem to them that it's not a big deal to jump on a plane, but they are doing so far more than everybody else. Tackling climate change needs to start with these super-emitters,” says Mr Goessling.

In fact, the research data fully supports that just a minor share of air travellers is responsible for a large share of warming. It identifies that the percentile of the most frequent fliers – estimated to be at most 1% of the world population - likely accounts for more than half of the total emissions from passenger air travel.

When it comes to frequent corporate travellers, the research suggests that the most frequent 10% of fliers may account for between 30% and 50% of all flights taken. The share of the fuel used by these air travellers is also likely higher, as frequent fliers will more often travel business or first class, citing World Bank estimates that travel in business class (three times) and first class (nine times) have a much larger carbon footprint than flying in economy.

As we start to see the reboot of corporate travel this study provides some food for thought. While we will certainly see some substitution from technology in aspects of business travel and a reduction in conference travel in the short-term, businesses will increasingly still look to get their sales teams and senior executives back travelling. A sustainable travel strategy will need to be at the centre of any organisation’s policy if we are to make any real change and learn from our past activities.