How the World Bank could slash its carbon emissions: Start flying in coach

As if the nice meal and the on-demand movies and the fully reclining seats weren’t enough to infuriate the rest of us, first-class air travel is also ruining the environment.

Or at least so says the World Bank in a new study estimating that the carbon footprint of a first-class airplane seat may be as much as nine times larger than an economy-class berth. A business-class ticket has three times the carbon footprint as economy. (The analysis is not adjusted, the report helpfully notes, to try to account for the varying weights of passengers).


World Bank staffers usually don't take the cheap seats when they travel. (Michael Stravato/AP)

The seats are bigger, so there are fewer of them on the plane, and a plane with fewer passengers is using more fuel per person who is delivered to their destination. Moreover, the number of business-class seats occupied on a given flight – the load factor – tends to be lower as well, so a smaller percentage of the seats are occupied. And first-class passengers take more luggage, adding more weight to the plane and consuming more fuel.

Add it all up, and “the carbon footprint is much higher for business-class travel than for economy-class travel and even higher for first class-travel.”

And World Bank staff, who travel across the planet in their duties, are major users of business and first-class airplane seats. Staff at World Bank headquarters in Washington took more than 189,000 trips in 2009, totaling 447 million miles. Some 73.6 percent of those miles were in business class and another 6.9 percent in first class. (Most first-class travel has since been eliminated.)

The authors note that for an organization that has made climate change a top priority, it might want to assess its travel policies to offset the higher carbon footprint of its pricier air travel.

They stopped short of making a recommendation about how to achieve that offset. But herewith two very easy solutions:

Travel less. And when they do travel, sit in the back of the bus with the rest of us.

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Neil Irwin | June 13, 2013