Flying business class greater carbon footprint than economy travel

Staff at the UN and World Bank Group travel by air alot and mainly in business class. This has raised questions on economic and moral grounds but also generated debate about their carbon footprint. These organizations promote the science-based argument that drastic cuts in greenhouse gases are needed to avoid catastrophic climate change. Despite this the organizations maintain a travel policy that is relatively carbon intensive. Staff are entitled to travel in business class in trips over 9 hours. This is being raised to 11 hours for multi leg journeys

  • For staff members below the Assistant Secretary-General level and, where applicable, their eligible family members, the class immediately below first class (business class cabin, where available) shall be provided for travel on official business and on appointment, assignment or separation
  • when a single leg journey is nine hours or more and for multi-leg journeys if the combined travel time of the journey is 11 hours or more, including a maximum of 2 hours of connection time, provided that the journey to the next destination resumes within 12 hours;

Switching to economy  some argue would reduce that carbon footprint significantly.

It is therefore timely to see the results of the Bank’s own work, recently published, in assessing whether travelling business has a greater carbon footprint than economy. The authors, Heinrich Bofinger and Jon Strand, do not give a simple figure of how much more carbon-intensive business class travel is, but the conclusions are clear enough:

“…our calculations indicate a footprint per mile for premium (business and first) classes substantially greater than for economy class. The main reason is that aircrafts’ fuel consumption to only a small degree depends on the number (or weight) of passengers; and that an average premium-class passenger takes up a larger than average space in an aircraft, reducing the number of passengers that can be transported on a given flight.This is a relevant consideration since, we argue aircrafts’ class specific cabin sizes are not exogenous but instead reflect airline decisions to maximize profits (where premium class passengers pay more a major reason for which is to have more available space provided in the aircraft)”
Other fun facts from the study:
  • Business class seats take up 2.28 times more room on the plane than economy.
  • In 2009, WB staff made 189,000 trips by air, covering 447 million miles, 53,000 trips were economy, 124,516 in business and 11,418 in first (first has since been virtually eliminated)
  • The total carbon footprint for the year was 98,000 metric tons

See my previous post on the need for mandatory measures in the UN system to reduce travel emissions (rather than relying on good will).

This entry was posted in Aid for Trade, Climate change and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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