business climate change social justice transport

Europe’s airlines are global polluters

A couple of weeks ago the campaign group Transport & Environment released some figures on the climate impact of Europe’s airlines. It’s the first time these figures have been compiled, which gives you a sense of how easy it is to gloss over the aviation industry’s contribution to climate change.

Here’s a top five:

  • Lufthansa: 19.11 million tonnes of CO2
  • British Airways: 18.38
  • Air France: 14.39
  • Ryanair: 12.28
  • KLM: 10.03

These are big and fairly meaningless numbers, so let me put them in context by pointing out that these emissions totals are equivalent to entire countries. Lufthansa’s are around the same as Bolivia or Ghana. Ryanair has the same impact as the whole of Yemen.

In fact, you could make a map of the countries with smaller footprints than these airlines. I’ll choose British Airways because they’re based in the UK. This isn’t exhaustive, because some of the red loops below include more than one principality – but you get the idea. British Airways is a globally significant polluter.

As they’re local to me, I take an interest in Easyjet and their carbon emissions. They’re a smaller airline with 4.83 million tonnes to its name. Here’s an equivalent map for them.

The reason I wanted to make these maps isn’t just to highlight the high emissions of the airlines, but to put them into perspective with the low emissions of developing countries. Just one multinational firm can have the same impact as tens of millions of people in Africa. And yet it is those communities that face the highest risk from climate change, while BA’s passengers and shareholders may be largely oblivious of the worst climate impacts in Africa or in small island states.

Pause to consider who flies and who doesn’t, and where the damage falls, and again we see the inequality that my new book explores: climate change is racist.

4 comments

  1. Hi Jeremy, thanks for posting. This is interesting although potentially very misleading. Most emissions in countries across Africa are severely undercounted as they fall into the categories of land use and land use change or the AFOLU sector for which sophisticated accounting is still emerging. This includes massive fire emissions each year from farmers burning off grass and other savannah, significant land disturbance from forest degradation and conversion, and other categories that are either underestimated or not included in national GHG reporting.
    Drawing the conclusion that climate change is therefore racist is also strange given these massive uncertainties.

    1. This is only one factor. Much of southern Africa, for example, will experience twice the warming racked up at planetary level, because of unique climate features. But aside from South Africa, these countries – which already suffer crop loss, drought and flooding at increased levels as climate changes – will experience harm, illness, malnutrition and death. As a result, largely of consumption and activities in the Global North. And I am sure the book mentioned here will add much more evidence that climate change has a hugely unequal impact, with harm falling heavily on the people of the Global South.

    2. Yes, I’ve used a dataset here that excludes land use, because that seemed like a fairer comparison to the airlines, which don’t manage land. If I were just comparing countries, it would be important to add those back in.

      I’m aware that I’m making a fairly general point, and that there’s an emerging science around these non-fossil fuel emissions. Accounting isn’t always well developed in many of the countries in the map either. But I’d be interested to know just how far they may be underestimated, and you’d know more about this than I do. For example, Madagascar has per capita carbon footprints that are 1% of those in Australia. So reporting would have to be spectacularly miscalculated to change that kind of difference. Do you have any sense of how large the undercounting would be?

      There are multiple aspects to the racial inequality of climate change. Unequal carbon footprints is one of them. Unequal vulnerability is another. Inequalities in political power are also part of it, with poorer countries or small island states’ concerns sidelined to make way for richer (white) priorities. Colonial legacies are part of that too. And as always with structural racism, that is to do with outcomes rather than intent. It’s not a deliberately racist act, but outcomes for people of colour are going to be far worse than for white citizens of the global north.

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