Take a look at this graph: Global air travel increased 8 fold in 4 decades – and it’s an accelerating trend. Yes we have a problem

Over the last 40 years global air travel has almost increased eight fold: In 1974 air planes carried 421 million people globally. In 2014 this number has increased to 3,21 billion passengers – that’s a billion more in just five years time.

But please don’t be mistaken to think that means half the world population can be found in an air plane every year. We count ‘passenger flights’ here, not people – it’s still a small portion of the human population that needs to fly every year to survive. Let’s imagine where this trend would go if we kept ignoring this issue:Global air travel increase - click for larger pop up
You could look at this graph and say global air travel is steadily increasing since the seventies. But if you take a closer peek you can see something else is going on over the last 10-15 years: The group of medium-income countries is picking up. As a result of both trends the total number of passenger flights has increased by one billion in just five years time (between 2009-2014). Click for large version

The World Bank’s Data Bank is brilliant. It allows you to sift through all sorts of very interesting data about our planet, its 7-point-something billion human inhabitants and their behaviour. They for instance have the data (or close estimates) about the total numbers of passenger flights per year, for every individual country. And if you group these according to income level you can draw three very interesting conclusions:

  • As a group, ‘rich people’ fly more and more (not all, some very often) – the total number of passenger flights from high-income countries is still increasing annually – first breaching 2 billion in 2014.
  • ‘Medium-income countries’ are starting to pick up (the world’s new middle class is becoming richer, while plane tickets are becoming cheaper [see graph below for indication] – too cheap, from an atmospheric perspective). The number of passenger flights from mediu-income countries first breached 1 billion in 2013 (1,141 million in 2014).
  • The vast majority of people from low-income countries never fly – in 2014 this country group only accounted for 14 million passenger flights in total, globally (and we presume that might be the higher income class from these poor countries)

Average price of plane tickets is declining
For the US the average price of plane tickets has almost halved in just over 30 years time. While airfares are becoming cheaper, the world is becoming richer – and yes, that is a problematic combination.

From this we draw a fourth conclusion: The trend of rapidly increasing global air travel is set to continue – and might even accelerate as the price of air tickets becomes affordable to the bulk of the human population. As flying is by far the most CO2 intensive means of transporation the aviation industry is going to become another major CO2 emitter over the coming decades.

And that just simply does not fit – not under agreed political climate targets (1.5 degrees, 2 degrees) nor in the physical reality of an already heavily carbon-polluted single shared atmosphere.

The big taboo: Easier to discuss meat, than flying 

The continued growth of global air travel is one of the last big green taboos. Everyone likes to see the world from up high – preferably several times per year – and some rather give up animal protein sources* than their travelling lifestyle.

[*)we've at least noticed that it seems easier to discuss 'meat' than 'flying' – especially among the 'environmentally concerned' (a group everyone should belong to btw)]

It is something we need to have a collective discussion about though, because the above trend can simply not continue – in the interest of us all.

Two things we need to do: Break the taboo – start talking about this issue. And include aviation emissions in the UN climate treaty(!) Because that political game of hide and seek is becoming a bit silly – just split 50%-50% land from departure-arrival – and take your responsibility, nations. Here’s the 3-second explanation.

I Try Not To Fly
It used to be high-income countries only – but since 2013 over a billion yearly passenger flights carry people from medium-income countries. High-income country air travel is also continuously increasing. All people that want to at least TRY to breach the trend, please click the image – and join the discussion!

I Try Not To Fly
Do you want to help? Use the hashtag #ITryNotToFlyand help break the taboo!

© Rolf Schuttenhelm | www.bitsofscience.org 

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