In light of the climate crisis, the debate over whether government ministers should fly business or economy class sounds like shifting seats on the Air Titanic.
After all, there is no such thing as low-CO2 flying – no matter how much comfort or narrowness your seat offers.
But turning left or right when boarding a plane can affect how high your personal emissions rise.
The admission by two Green Party ministers that they boarded business class on official trips therefore warrants close scrutiny.
According to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), a passenger in Business Class or First Class emits up to four times more CO2 per mile than a fellow passenger in the low-cost seats.
At first glance, that doesn’t seem to make much sense, because the plane flies, consumes fuel and emits carbon dioxide, no matter how many passengers are on board and where they are seated.
The logic is that the more passengers that can be crammed into Economy, the more efficient the fuel usage and the more minds there are to split the emissions between them for a lower “per passenger” carbon footprint.
On the other hand, the premium section of the aircraft will have fewer passengers and carry slightly less weight than the crammed economy section, and since weight is the main factor in fuel consumption, the flight will save some fuel and emissions.
But for every budget-conscious passenger who can’t be accommodated on an airplane because space is occupied by spacious business-class accommodations and cavernous first-class accommodations, another seat on another flight is needed.
All those squashed passengers with cheap seats will eventually make up another full planeload, so more planes fly and therefore more industrial emissions overall.
Business class travel has another, less obvious, emissions-increasing effect, as its high-priced tickets effectively subsidize economy class, keeping seat prices low and passenger numbers, flight numbers and emissions high.
Brussels-based campaign group Transport and Environment (T&E) highlighted this tangled relationship between budget and business seats in a roadmap report on decarbonizing aviation last March.
“Although business travelers make up only a small portion (about 20 percent) of total passengers, they generate a significant portion of airline revenue, up to 75 percent according to some sources,” it said.
Any loss of that income would have to be offset by an increase in the price of budget seats, which would dampen demand.
T&E calculated that a 50 percent reduction in business passengers could result in a reduction in economy passengers of at least 4 percent “even if aircraft configurations are adjusted to reduce premium seats in favor of economy seats.”
That 4 percent drop would be significant as it would be much larger than the number of business travelers.
A reduction in business class passengers could be achieved in a number of ways. Companies, the largest customers for premium seats, can take the initiative themselves.
You’re under pressure to take corporate action to reduce carbon emissions, so capping flight time or moving to economy class is a relatively easy target.
Matteo Mirolo, aviation policy officer at T&E, said passengers may need a bigger nudge and that business class seats, expensive as they are, need to get even more expensive as there comes a point where accountants themselves are in the largest companies are beginning to question spending.
“Flying business class is four times worse for the climate than for the economy,” said Mr Mirolo.
“There are two solutions – stop flying business class and ideally replace your flight with low-carbon alternatives where possible.
“And for those flying business (class), we need to impose higher taxes on business class to reflect the disproportionate climate impact of those seats.”
Mr Mirolo had little sympathy for the argument that government ministers like Eamon Ryan and Catherine Martin need space and privacy on flights to work and arrive fresh for the negotiations their flight takes them to.
“Facing such a climate emergency, ministers should have better things on their minds than flying in luxury,” he said.
The aviation industry has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, and regardless of the credibility of that stated goal, the EU is developing an initiative called ReFuelEU to increase the supply of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).
Last week, the European Parliament banned the use of palm oil and other biofuels derived from polluting monocultures for SAF.
Instead, they rely on e-kerosene, a synthetic fuel made from green hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
Technically, these synthetic fuels have been shown to work, and some airlines are already blending a small percentage with their regular fuels to initiate the transition.
However, they are expensive and will continue to be so until the technology is widely adopted and economies of scale in price disappear.
Carbon neutral may be the future goal, but in the meantime airlines will do well to hope that discerning – in other words wealthy – passengers will continue to distinguish left from right.
https://www.independent.ie/news/environment/high-flying-greens-face-scrutiny-heres-why-travelling-business-class-is-four-times-worse-for-the-climate-than-economy-41836743.html Green ministers are under scrutiny: That’s why traveling in business class is “four times worse for the climate than for the economy”