Flying is very far from being a green activity. A return flight from Lisbon to New York generates nearly the same level of CO2 as the average person in the EU does by heating their home all year round.
Compared with land transport, a plane requires a lot more energy, says Agnes Jocher, a professor at the Technical University of Munich, whose research explores sustainable future mobility. The result is a disproportionate climate impact compared to alternatives (trains and ferries, to name a few).
In a 2019 report on reducing emissions through behaviour change, Richard Carmichael, a social sciences researcher at Imperial College London, observed that flying was a “uniquely high-impact activity” and “the quickest and cheapest way for a consumer to increase their carbon footprint”.
Rather than simply capping travellers’ ability to fly, Carmichael suggested an alternative: to limit the perks that travellers get from airlines. Among his recommendations, Carmichael proposed an outright ban on air miles and frequent flyer loyalty programmes that he says incentivise “excessive” flying.
By one estimate, trips taken using air miles account for around 10% of overall bookings. But could axing these schemes curb rising aviation emissions? Or would such a policy be fruitless – and efforts to reduce aviation be better spent elsewhere? The answer is more complicated that it might initially seem.