Climate activist groups like Fridays for Future and the emergence of flygskram (Swedish for “flying shame”) have been leading the way in a recent backlash against flying. As Statista’s Niall McCarthy notes, travelers are being increasingly encouraged to ditch the airlines and opt for alternative modes of transportation, such as taking the train, in order to reduce their carbon footprint. Given how cheap airlines have transformed the world, should people be ashamed by how much they are flying?
According to a study carried out by the International Council on Clean Transportation, the answer in the U.S. at least is generally no. Around half of people in the U.S. do not fly and the bigger emission issue actually lies with a small group of frequent fliers as well as trying to figure out which flights are a luxury and which are a necessity.
The 12 percent of Americans who make more than six round trips by air each year are actually responsible for two-thirds of all U.S. air travel and therefore two-thirds of all its emissions. Each of those travelers emits over 3 tons of CO2 per year and if everyone else in the world flew like them, global oil consumption would rise 150 percent while CO2 from fossil fuel use would go up 60 percent. As over half of the population does not generally fly, the U.S. ranks 11th in emissions per capita from flying.
The frequent fliers have a considerable environmental impact, however, and they ensure that the U.S. is the country with the highest total carbon emissions from commercial aviation.
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Last year, flights departing an airport from the U.S. and its territories accounted for 24 percent of all global CO2 from commerical aviation. China was the second-worst offender in 2018 with 13 percent while the UK came third with 4 percent. Global civil aviation produced around 918 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2018, higher than the total annual emissions of the UK and Canada combined.