The irony of jet-setters fixing climate change

Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint


Aviation-led climate damage has only just begun to become part of the United Nations’ climate change response. But the environmental injury the industry causes deserves attention as countries wrestle over net-zero goals

Hundreds of private VIP jets and chartered flights descended into the Scottish city of Glasgow late last month, ferrying world leaders and high-level delegations to a summit meant to avert the climate crisis. The irony was not lost to many: could negotiators have found more eco-friendly ways to reach the COP26 meeting? Or were private jets the best vehicle they had?

As it stands, aviation-led climate damage has only just begun to become part of the United Nations’ climate change response. But the environmental injury the industry causes deserves attention as countries wrestle over net-zero goals. G20 leaders’ cosy private jets alone may have burned enough fuel to eject 11.3 tonnes of carbon dioxide per flight heading to COP26 from another summit in Rome, a recent BBC analysis found.


Each such private jet could melt up to 37 square metres of Arctic Sea ice, an area of space as large as nine tennis tables, show our calculations based on a 2016 simulation model by Dirk Notz and Julienne Stroeve published in Science journal. If all of the nearly 200 world leaders were to travel from Rome by a jet of the same make, they would rob the Arctic of nearly 6,900 square metres of ice.

However, many experts discount this climate impact: they feel an in-person event was worth it, as virtual summits may make poorer island nations feel unheard. But the top world leaders’ choices for sure put the spotlight on the long-term emissions impact of the aviation industry itself, which makes up 2.5% of the world’s carbon footprint.


Rich pursuit

Carbon-leaking world leaders are just the pinnacle of the problem. Even commercial flights that carry regular flyers saw their carbon emissions rise 33% in six years to 785 million tonnes in 2019, shows a working paper by the International Council on Clean Transportation.

For India, the rise was 65%. Technology has helped bring emissions in check since 20th-century levels, but with low-cost airlines still on the rise, air travel is only going to expand and heat up the planet. A large share of responsibility lies on high-income countries, which host two-thirds of the world’s flyers despite having just one-sixth of the population, World Bank data shows. Only about a quarter of humanity may have flown in an airplane.

This brings in the usual ethical issue that emerges for most climate-related problems: the world's poor don’t pollute, but are the most exposed to climate disasters and deprived of resources to cope with its consequences.


Pledges galore

The frightening numbers have prompted flight-boycott movements such as Sweden's “flygskam", meaning "flight shame", in 2018. But the world will need more: the carbon footprint of global aviation is likely to grow three-fold by 2050, according to the International Civil Aviation Organisation, a UN body.

Making sure that stays in check—despite the rising demand from a world eager to fly—depends on how the industry acts on its recent commitment to net zero emissions by mid-century. Countries are also getting started on similar goals, with 23 governments committing to new decarbonization targets at COP26. But these countries account for less than half of aviation emissions. India was not part of this, though the US, which contributes a quarter of all aviation emissions, was.

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), which are essentially bio-fuels, and better fuel efficiency will be key for the sector to at least get going in the near term till a complete shift towards green aviation can be executed.



Attention, globetrotters

The roadmap to that goal doesn’t absolve the industry of its responsibility to do what it can actually do sooner. Indeed, green fuel will be the greatest contributor to the 2050 goal, but several other factors, such as efficient air traffic management and avoiding short-haul flights, could also go a long way in offsetting aviation-related emissions.

This leads us back to globetrotting world leaders and their avoidable carbon discharge. For some, the trip involved multiple short flights in the last month, first during the G20 summit and then for the COP26. Some of these flights were as short as 35 km, transporting aspiring climate heroes on their private aircraft from Glasgow to Prestwick.

The inevitable reliance on aviation for travel and logistics will continue, but it will all come down to such choices that political and business leaders, as well as citizens, make on the way.

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