Pew reports widespread support for low-emission lifestyles. Will individuals then reduce their air travel?
A recent Pew survey of countries in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific found that 72% of respondents are very / somewhat concerned that climate change will harm them personally. The wording is crucial: it is not about harming others; it is about harming oneself and one’s family. The concern for personal safety is consistent with other reports of increasing levels of climate anxiety.
In addition, 80% of respondents are ready to adopt low-emission lifestyles. We recognize that many climate activists do not want to talk about lifestyle changes. Instead, they want to focus on systemic change through government policy. Yet, huge numbers of people are embracing the idea of low emission lifestyles. Skeptics might wonder if this will result in real changes that could be both expensive and impractical. Or, do the Pew Poll numbers reflect gossip, possibly rooted in a social desirability bias?
How might we test the claim about lifestyle changes? Air transport is an excellent candidate for three reasons. First, it represents a substantial level of carbon emissions. Second, it is an elite activity and will not impose costs on the vast majority of the population. Third, COVID has shown that the world can continue with minimal air travel.
Contribution of aviation to global emissions
Aviation accounts for around 2.5% of global carbon emissions. This is a big deal because it would make the aviation sector the 7th largest carbon emitter in the world if it were a country. Airlines are responsible for around 1 billion tonnes of carbon emissions. Sweden, Greta Thunberg’s country of origin, contributes 40 million tonnes. California, the leader in US climate policy, represents around 250 million tonnes. Thus, aviation represents 25 times the emissions of Sweden and four times those of California.
Who generates aviation-related emissions? The richest 1% of the world’s population is responsible for 50% of aviation emissions. Flying is an elite activity, which also means that an aviation crackdown is unlikely to hurt the masses.
Basically, there are three approaches to reducing aviation emissions: technological solutions, carbon offsets, and reducing air travel. Here is a quick assessment of their pros and cons.
Technological fixes preserve the status quo in living and working styles. They take two main forms: aircraft efficiency and low-emission fuels. Improving efficiency is not controversial – it’s about increasing the number of kilometers traveled on a gallon of fuel. It seems like a no-brainer. Of course, this assumes that the flight volume does not change. But if people start flying more because planes are more efficient – what Richard York calls “moral disinhibition” – the efficiency gains would be offset by more flights.
What about sustainable or biofuels, the strategy favored by the Biden administration and the airline industry. It’s unclear how many emissions they reduce for every mile they fly compared to fossil fuels. Soybeans and corn (as well as organic waste) are believed to be feedstocks for sustainable fuels. Yet, as the debates on the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Act in the US Congress indicate, there is no agreement on their sustainability. Whether the Amazon forests are cut down to plant soybeans or if corn is produced using oil-intensive methods, their reduction in emissions is unclear.
Sustainable fuels sometimes have negative non-climatic consequences. When the forests of Southeast Asia are cleared to plant palm trees that produce biofuel, biodiversity is lost. The use of maize as fuel is likely to increase food prices, hurting the poor. The bottom line is that the impact on lifecycle emissions of sustainable fuels should be carefully documented, not assumed.
Unlike technological solutions, carbon offsets do not directly reduce aviation emissions. Instead, they allow travelers to buy emission reductions elsewhere by planting trees, financing solar / wind power, or capturing carbon / methane.
In theory, the carbon offsets seem reasonable because it doesn’t matter whether the emissions are reduced in country A or country B. With the offsets, I can continue to fly and remain carbon neutral. In addition, carbon offsets are a sort of Pigouvian carbon self-tax. By activating the price mechanism, they could persuade people to travel less.
Yet carbon offsets have problems. From a fairness standpoint, they are like buying indulgences, where individuals pay for forgiveness but pursue unwanted activities.
Moreover, their impact on emissions is also unclear. Think about their tax effect. Taxes only change behavior if they inflict enough suffering. Carbon offsets usually don’t. An economy class round trip between San Francisco and New York generates 1.16 tonnes of emissions. It can be compensated for as little as $ 11.51. This is less than the fee charged by many airlines to reserve a preferred seat on a flight.
But there is a more serious problem with their demand for emission reductions. The offsetting buyer might have difficulty verifying emission reductions or sequestration. Suppose the offset provider plants trees to sequester 1.16 tonnes of carbon over the life of those trees. How would the passenger know that these trees have survived their entire 40 to 60 year life? What if there is a forest fire or the tree dies due to a pest attack? What if offset sellers fell mature trees and planted new ones in order to obtain offset credits?
Reduce air travel
Technology fixes and carbon offsets sidestep an obvious question: should we just reduce air travel? We could telecommute and take a vacation somewhere closer to home. After all, the world did something quite similar during COVID. Yes, some savings have been affected such as those invested in airports, recreational tourism and conference tourism. A rapid decline in air transport will create a problem of “stranded assets” and “just transition” policies would be needed to support these economies.
If the Pew poll is to be believed, people should be motivated to cut back on air travel. It’s fair to assume that travelers have information about the flight’s climate impact. They’ve probably heard of Greta Thunberg, who doesn’t fly, or social movements like The Shame of Flying. Maybe the outspoken environmentalists who use private jets (eg, see here and here) should show some leadership and publicly renounce flying, or at least in private jets.
As economies recover from COVID, we need to watch the rebound in flights. Would the flight return to pre-COVID level, stabilize below or even exceed it? This will help us assess whether the Pew poll accurately captures respondents’ “real” desire to change their carbon-intensive lifestyles, or whether it is simply reflecting a signal of virtue.