The youth activist Greta Thunberg has made a splash by sailing across the Atlantic on a yacht to a UN climate summit in order to avoid the carbon emissions of a flight. While few of us would endure 15 days on the high seas, it seems her stance is striking a chord - especially with the young.

Across the world, one in seven say they will shun flying even if it means using more expensive and less convenient alternatives, according to a new survey.

Conducted by research firm Ipsos for the Forum, the report finds a further 29% of people would switch to alternative transport options if they cost the same as flying and were as convenient. The strongest support for switching to low-carbon alternatives comes from frequent fliers.

The survey is released ahead of the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact Summit, which will push for action on the transition to a low-carbon economy.

What is the World Economic Forum’s Sustainable Development Impact summit?

It’s an annual meeting featuring top examples of public-private cooperation and Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies being used to develop the sustainable development agenda.

It runs alongside the United Nations General Assembly, which this year features a one-day climate summit. This is timely given rising public fears – and citizen action – over weather conditions, pollution, ocean health and dwindling wildlife. It also reflects the understanding of the growing business case for action.

The UN’s Strategic Development Goals and the Paris Agreement provide the architecture for resolving many of these challenges. But to achieve this, we need to change the patterns of production, operation and consumption.

The World Economic Forum’s work is key, with the summit offering the opportunity to debate, discuss and engage on these issues at a global policy level.

A new generation of non-fliers

Younger people, aged under 35, and those with a university education express the strongest support for finding an alternative to flying. In China, nearly two-thirds of people say they would avoid flying even if the alternative were less convenient or more expensive.

People in South Korea, India, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Sweden and South Africa also show strong support for using other forms of transport, although fewer than in China would be willing to make the switch regardless of cost and inconvenience.

Image: Ipsos/World Economic Forum

The survey holds mixed news for airlines when it comes to public perception of their commitment to reduce their environmental impact. Just under a third of people have a great deal or fair amount of trust that the industry will cut its carbon emissions.

Half of all Saudi Arabians express a great deal of faith in the environmental commitment of airlines, a far higher proportion than any other nation. Three-quarters also have a great deal or fair amount of trust that airlines will back their promises with actions.

Trust in airlines to implement change is lowest in Japan and South Korea, while nearly half of adults in South Korea, Germany, France and Spain have very little or no trust in the industry’s ability to change.

Industry pledge

Image: Aviation Benefits

Aviation contributes $2.7 trillion to the global economy, shipping about 62 trillion tonnes of freight, carrying more than 4 billion passengers and supporting more than 65 million jobs last year.

The airline industry has pledged to cap its CO2 emissions from 2020 and it says that by 2050 aviation emissions will be half the level they were in 2005.

Aviation currently accounts for 2% of global emissions. The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, launched in 2016, aims to offset 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2 between 2021 and 2035. Airlines are already trialling renewable jet fuels which could arguably reduce emissions by as much as 80%.

“Improvements in efficiencies, on the ground and in the air, have already contributed significantly to reducing emissions in flying," says Lauren Uppink, Head of Aviation, Travel and Tourism Industries at the World Economic Forum.

"Technology innovations, even electric propulsion, are resulting in cleaner aircraft. But we believe the real game changer is sustainable aviation fuels. They work, but are not currently produced or used at scale, and are far more expensive than traditional jet fuels. Driving down the costs of these fuels is where the collective innovative efforts of the entire value chain is needed.”

Image: Ipsos/World Economic Forum

IATA, the industry body, says new-generation aircraft are 20% more fuel-efficient than the models they replace. Over the next decade airlines will invest $1.3 trillion in new aircraft, including new electric commuter planes now being developed.

The Sustainable Development Impact Summit will engage academics and leaders from businesses, governments and NGOs to collaborate and address the world's most pressing problems.

Accelerating climate action to cap global warming at 1.5°C will be high on the agenda.