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MDX and LSE research discovers air and car travel could be willingly reduced to tackle global warming

08/12/2021
The study calls for policies to address over consumption because the "rich should do more because they are polluting more"

Juan Santamaria International Airport, Alajuela, Costa Rica

A survey of UK car drivers and air travellers has discovered they would reduce a significant number of regular journeys after COVID-19 to tackle global warming.

Middlesex University and the London School of Economics (LSE) surveyed 3,998 people about their regular journeys before the pandemic and asked whether they would be willing to travel less in future for environmental reasons.

Results show car drivers are willing to reduce car use by 24%-30% while air travellers are willing to reduce their air travel by 20%-26% on average compared to pre-Covid-19 levels in support of a low-carbon lifestyle.

“How can it be fair that one tonne of carbon produced by a family flying once every year for their annual holiday is classed as the same as one tonne of carbon produced by a rich person on their 50th flight that year?" Dr Tanya O'Garra,  a Senior Lecturer in Economics.

Significantly, the car travel reduction of 24%-30% would meet the 17% car use target needed for the UK to reach net zero by 2050 as proposed by the government’s Climate Change Committee (CCC).

The research paper suggests “increased leisure time and decreased work time may contribute significantly to emissions reductions”.

Dr Tanya O’Garra, a Senior Lecturer in Economics at Middlesex University who co-led the study, explained: “When people are not rushed by work, they are actually more likely to satisfy their attitudes and preferences about the environment.

“This is a powerful message suggesting policies could be implemented that not only support wellbeing but also the planet.

“After COVID-19, there is a unique window of opportunity to continue travelling less and potentially reduce carbon emissions enough to keep global warming to below 1.5°C.

“Our results suggest a significant number of UK car drivers and air travellers may be willing to support this goal by reducing the amount they drive and fly.”

The study concluded even after voluntary reductions, the highest earners would still expect to fly on average 21,679 miles per year and calls for policies to tackle over consumption associated with affluence.

Dr Roger Fouquet, Associate Professorial Research Fellow at the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change at the London School of Economics, who also co-led the study, said: “Our research confirms that the rich drive and especially fly substantially more than poorer people, and are responsible for a great deal more emissions.

“Proportionately the less affluent car drivers and air travellers are willing to reduce just the same amount as the more affluent and we’re saying ‘the rich have to do more because they’re polluting more’.”

Dr O’Garra added: “How can it be fair that one tonne of carbon produced by a family flying once every year for their annual holiday is classed as the same as one tonne of carbon produced by a rich person on their 50th flight that year?

“The research concludes that consumption and in turn carbon emissions will increase over the next 30 years as people earn more money and the UK will fail to reach net zero emissions targets unless the rich do more about their environmental impact.”

In total, 2,003 air travellers and 1,995 car users were surveyed in June 2020 and June 2021. The results showed a willingness to reduce air travel of 3,023 miles (20% of overall total) and 4,047 miles (26%) per person, per year respectively and car use reductions of 2,080 miles (24%) and 2,716 miles (30%) per person, per year respectively.

The research paper - Willingness to reduce travel consumption to support a low-carbon transition beyond COVID-19 – has been peer reviewed and published in the journal Ecological Economics, volume 193. Read the full paper.

Find out more about studying Economics at Middlesex University.

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