The threat of climate change is growing at alarming rates and one player in particular is not helping: airlines. Air travel is one of the most efficient means of travel, but what is it really costing us? Even though air travel is a form of shared transportation (something we tend to think of as having positive externalities associated with lowering our carbon footprint), it is actually making us worse off.
Right now, air travel accounts for 2.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, but in thirty-one years, it could take up to a quarter of the world’s carbon budget. In short, the carbon emissions from airplanes will nearly triple by 2050. Naturally, this is putting pressure on airline regulators to take stronger action in an attempt to lower emissions.
Most airlines have made significant progress in becoming more fuel efficient and eco-friendly with their aircrafts. However, this progress has been overthrown by the increase in demand for air travel; there were nearly 40 million flights in the last year. This increase is largely propelled by a proliferation of low-cost airlines and a booming tourism industry catering to a growing middle class.
Airlines are off to a good start with fuel efficiency – yet, they are not combatting the real problem: there are just too many flights with a rising demand. In order to truly tackle this problem, airlines will need to cut back on their supply or increase the cost of flying in order to disincentivize consumers. I see option one working better than the latter. With no close substitutes to air transportation, raising prices will not change the quantity demanded. Yes, domestically one can drive or take a train, but for overseas travel, flying is the more efficient choice for most. The best possible solution that I see is decreasing the supply of flights per airline, which poses its own problems.
Air travel is a huge market, source of revenue, and employs many (seriously, have you seen how many people work at airports?). According to Airports Council International, the world’s fastest growing airports are in emerging economies, serving as a boost to the economy. Development economics could argue that a reduction in air travel would hurt growth. Of course, we are now more aware that progress does not come without a cost to our global well-being. Airlines need to take more urgent action when addressing climate change even at some expense to developing economies.