A highly recommended BBC article, “What would a flying-free world look like?”, is an exercise in economics-fiction to try to imagine what a world would look like in which airlines and air travel as a whole simply disappeared.
To begin with, contrary to what many might think, flying is not such a widespread activity: only 11% of the global population flew at some point during 2018, and only 4% flew in international transit. More than half of Britons do not fly even once in an average year, and the vast majority of flights are taken by a tiny minority of users.
Yet air traffic is one of the most difficult activities in the world to decarbonize, and its emissions grew by 30% between 2013 and 2019, against a backdrop where global emissions over the same period grew by 4%. Despite the 60% standstill brought about by the pandemic, airlines, which were in many cases bailed out with taxpayers’ money for the use of the small but highly active minority, will contribute between 6% and 17% to the amount of carbon dioxide we will emit if we try to not exceed the 1.5% to 2% global warming target.
What would happen if we stopped flying? For starters, unemployment would increase by some 11.3 million people working directly in the activity, and up to a total of 87.7 million jobs worldwide — according to the industry itself — if we take into account the total supply chain, employee spending and tourism activities it enables. In that sense, those territories with a surplus of visitors would suffer the most, while those countries — or above all, islands — with a deficit of tourists, i.e. where their inhabitants tend to go to other countries instead of taking their vacations in their own territory, would tend to benefit.
In the supply chain of other industries, the impact would be much more relative, because only 1% of total goods in global trade are transported by air, although they tend logically to be high-margin products: we would consume less fruit, flowers and other fresh produce out of season, while other foods, such as fish, would be transported by other means, resorting to freezing.
The most important substitute for the activity would undoubtedly be high-speed trains, whose networks are being expanded in many parts of the world. But other means of transport such as autonomous vehicles, which allow a person to carry out other activities in the process, could become increasingly important as they become more widely available, as could decarbonized air transport such as airships or electric aviation in various forms.
In the end, we are talking about an activity that many assume is essential and vital to the global economy, which most of those who have to use it hate, but which in practice is used by a small elite who, as was seen during the pandemic, could replace other activities (conferences or meetings substituted by online activities, etc.), and a relatively small amount of products that could be transported in other ways or simply not transported at all. In return, we have created a highly inefficient industry, with companies often flying empty planes to maintain routes, and operating thousands of aircraft that contribute to global warming.
Recommended reading for those who have the courage to try to rethink things. It also allows us to try to imagine how much the world will have to change if we are really capable of containing global warming to 1.5ºC or 2ºC at most. And if we are not capable… then, nothing matters anymore.
This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.
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