Aviation: A Matter of Climate Injustice

by | 31 Aug 2023 | Information

Aviation is the pinnacle of climate injustice. But what specifically is climate justice, why is flying one of the gravest examples of it, and how can we achieve climate justice?

What is climate (in)justice?

We are living in times of deep ecological and climate injustice. Those who have contributed the least to the climate crisis are already suffering the most from its consequences. Without urgent action these inequalities will only get worse. Those who benefited the most from fossil fuels must immediately halt their climate-wrecking pollution and support low-income economies in transitioning away from fossil fuels and adapting to the impacts of climate breakdown.

Climate justice means prioritising a good life for all above profits for a few. It must be planetary justice where we recognise the historical inequality of the climate crisis, the inequalities of the current system, and the rights of all beings and the living planet.

Climate justice requires a transformation of our unjust global systems – and privileged industries like aviation must be among the first we change.

Who is responsible and who pays?

The climate-just way to measure emissions is to count cumulative historical emissions, not annual flows. As of 2015, the Global North countries have exceeded their “fair share” of CO2 emissions by 92% (1).

Despite contributing the least to the climate crisis, disadvantaged, vulnerable and marginalised groups suffer far more from its consequences than the wealthy sections of society. The groups most impacted are often those who also suffer from other forms of discrimination, such as people of colour, Indigenous peoples, and women.

These groups are more often excluded from the benefits that come from burning coal, oil and gas, and they suffer more from the side effects of exploitation. While it is predominantly wealthy white men who fly and drive cars the most and who run oil companies and rake in their profits. Economically deprived communities and people of colour are more likely to to live next to refineries, polluting airports, or busy roads.

Marginalised populations are more affected by the long-term consequences of global heating such as water shortages and crop failures. They often also do not have the financial resources to adapt to these impacts.

The climate crisis amplifies existing inequalities. In areas where conflicts arise over resource shortages conditions deteriorate most for vulnerable groups and communities. Not only this, but marginalised groups suffer the most from the impacts of false solutions to the climate crisis. For example, Indigenous communities are often driven off their land for offset projects.

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Aviation and climate injustice

Flying is one of the gravest examples of climate injustice. Only a small minority of the world’s population flies at all and the most vulnerable people have an annual footprint far lower than one long-distance flight.

One attempt by the industry and consumers to legitimise aviation growth is to rely on offsetting. These offsets often lead to new injustices causing human rights and environmental problems in poorer countries. These projects don’t reduce emissions and divert attention away from urgent climate action. Ultimately, they are a licence to pollute.

What is needed for climate justice?

Climate justice can only be achieved by a transformation, both local and global, of how we live together on this planet and how we make decisions, work, produce, and consume. As well as this we need to reassess how we understand our relationship between each other as well as to the natural world. The countries, corporations and citizens in Europe, North America and other regions that have the greatest historical responsibility for the climate crisis must take the lead in rapidly reducing their emissions.

Climate debts must also be repaid to repair the loss and damages that have already taken place. These reparations must be more than just financial and must include technology transfers, patent waivers, and debt cancellation as well as policies that would respond to the displacement caused by rapidly accelerated global heating and its consequences.

For the changes we need to see to tackle the climate crisis we need to have inclusive and democratic processes. Disadvantaged groups must be at the heart of these processes to remedy historical power imbalances and discrimination. Our ultimate goal must be planetary justice, which gives every living being on our planet the opportunity to live a good life.


(1) Hickel (2020): Quantifying national responsibility for climate breakdown. http://bit.ly/3XQFGTh