Should Airlines Allocate Passengers A Carbon Budget?

Corporations are soon expected to introduce carbon budgets for business travel. Political and social movements are calling for personal flight caps. Should airlines get involved and introduce customer carbon rationing? The idea might seem contradictory at first but is not so crazy when applying a long-term self-preservation perspective.

Airplace carbon budget
While waiting for new lower-emission technology, what could airlines do to reduce their environmental impact? Photo: Getty Images

Interim solutions on the way to net-zero

With COP26 – the United Nations Climate Conference in Glasgow – taking place at the end of the month, this is a good time to look at various ways aviation could lessen its impact on global warming. As far as anyone can tell today, the long-term best bet for reducing overall CO2 emissions are industry-wide scale solutions such as Sustainable Aviation Fuel and alternative propulsion technologies.

However, the wide availability of these options is still many years in the future, even if there are plans for electric 180-seater planes to enter service by 2030. Unfortunately, the environment might not have the luxury to wait for drastic changes to come to pass.

As such, the industry needs to look to other interim sustainability measures as it springs back from its biggest battle to date. Aviation emissions more than halved during the height of the pandemic, but the question remains how to preserve some of those gains. In order to now help the planet fight its gravest crisis since the dawn of humanity, some are suggesting that individual air travel carbon quotas could be part of that solution.

Companies are getting ready to drastically reduce their business travel emissions by introducing carbon budgets.  Photo: Getty Images

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Businesses to introduce carbon quotas

Individual responsibility when it comes to lessening aviation’s effect on climate change rose to the forefront with the advent of the ‘flight shame’ movement in Northern Europe. Campaigns were launched urging people to ‘stay on the ground’, and organizations such as Extinction Rebellion held protests at various airports.

Some companies are eager to play their part in the sustainability agenda. Whether or not that is for the sake of publicity or due to actual concern does not really matter. As long as it is not mere greenwashing, the positive effects remain the same. Corporations are now looking at ways to cut emissions from business travel, something that most likely will include an overall ‘carbon budget’.

Initially, this might not sit incredibly well with either airlines or business travelers. Premium travel accounts for 5% of all international flying. However, it also corresponds to 30% of total international revenue.

Flights account for about 90% of business travel emissions. Traveling business class emits three times as much CO2 as sitting further back in the cabin. As such, air travel in general and premium air travel, in particular, will become an easy target as corporations chase carbon cuts.

Airbus A380, Emirates, Deliveries
If the industry does not succeed in drastically reducing carbon emissions, it may not have much of a future. Photo: Vincenzo Pace – Simple Flying

Could individual carbon bartering become a thing?

In April this year, Norway’s Green Party suggested capping each person’s number of flights. Is this something that airlines could take into consideration as they draw up their roadmaps towards net-zero (or, in the case of ANA and JAL, ‘almost’ zero) by 2050?

While carbon budgets might not make commercial sense initially, if aviation is to survive as we know it, it needs to make sure that it will still be possible to travel between destinations. If there is no air travel, nor will there be an aviation industry. If the harrowing reports of what we can expect in a century from now if we do not drastically change our ways of consuming energy are anything to go by, that scenario is not entirely unlikely.

A potential individual carbon budget could function according to a barter system of sorts. If one person does not intend to use the entire budget one year, they could offer part of it to someone else. Or, five employees could give up their conference economy tickets to send their CEO to a meeting in more comfort.

While carbon offsetting, airlines’ current mitigation effort of choice, is commendable, such projects are not without controversy. It could be better to invest in keeping the carbon out of the air in the first place.

What do you think, should airlines – in the name of responsibility and long-term self-interest – allocate carbon budgets to passengers? Or should such measures be left to