The global aviation industry is currently responsible for around 2% of all carbon emissions produced by humans. This makes up roughly 915 million tons of the world’s 43 billion ton yearly global output. While these numbers may seem astronomical, the aviation industry has actually made great strides in the past 50 years to lower its emissions while simultaneously improving the quality of flights.
Let’s take a closer look at how the aviation industry continues to impact global carbon emissions, where the majority of these emissions come from, which airlines are the cleanest, and how the industry as a whole has improved over the years.
If we take a look at the world’s total carbon emissions, we see that the vast majority of atmospheric CO2 comes from the energy sector. Breaking the energy sector down further, we find that roughly 24% of global emissions come from general industry while transportation makes up another 16.2% of all emissions.
Transportation covers a wide range of industries, though, including shipping, aviation, and general road transport. Within this 16.2%, the aviation industry only makes up 2% of all global emissions. This is in contrast to road transport which accounts for nearly 12%.
You can find a breakdown of carbon emissions for the year 2016 here:
When compared side-to-side with other industries, aviation no longer seems like such a large contributor, but it’s important to keep these numbers in perspective. A single flight from London to New York produces more carbon dioxide than a family heating their home for an entire year and, if we were to compare the aviation industry to a nation, it would still rank in the top 10 global polluters.
To many, it may seem shocking that the aviation industry’s carbon footprint is lower than most other industries, including the cement industry, waste management, and even residential homes. This is largely the result of years’ worth of regulation and public relations. However, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, aviation’s CO2 emissions had started to rise.
Taking a look at the year-by-year data, emissions have risen roughly 65% since 2004, going from around 635 million tons to 985 million tons. While the pandemic has largely put a halt to widespread global travel, emissions are already starting to rise again as nations around the globe begin reopening to business and tourists.
If this trend continues, the aviation industry will have doubled its emissions by 2050. Some believe this number could be as high as three times what it is today. To prevent further harm to the environment, the industry will have to take drastic measures to further reduce its carbon footprint.
Although the global aviation industry currently accounts for millions of tons of carbon dioxide every year, it requires a little more nuance to understand where the blame falls. The aviation industry includes both passenger and freight flights, meaning that both industries are responsible for some part of the emissions.
Unfortunately, though, passenger airlines take the lion’s share of the blame. As of 2018, air freight only accounted for about 19% of the aviation industry’s global emissions while passenger flights accounted for the remaining 81%. Furthermore, that 19% from air freight is largely unavoidable.
Currently, it’s often more efficient to produce foods in warmer climates and then ship them elsewhere than it is to grow non-native crops in an environment that cannot sustain the output. Unless the world is willing to sacrifice its newly adopted global diet, the only efficient way to maintain international crop transport is through air transit.
This means that if the aviation industry wants to reduce its
emissions, it will have to tackle the problem of passenger flights. What’s even
more nefarious, though, is the way airline emissions affect global climate
change. Because flights travel at such high altitudes, their emissions often
produce contrails, which are capable of trapping infrared light and further
warming the planet.
As bad as it all sounds, most major airlines are aware of their emissions and are working hard to reduce their carbon footprint before it’s too late. Many major airlines have set carbon zero goals and are reaching them faster than expected. If you’re wanting to fly without harming the environment, we recommend flying with one of these airlines:
Many airlines are also now offering carbon offset seats that allow passengers to pay a little extra to offset their carbon output. While the flights still produce the same amount of CO2, the airline invests those funds in carbon offsetting schemes such as tree planting and renewable energies.
Carbon offset seats are only marginally more expensive than
a standard seat, making it an attractive option for anyone wanting to help slow
or stop the onset of global climate change.
It’s hard to believe that the COVID-19 pandemic could have had positive outcomes but if we take a look at the environment, we can easily see the effects of fewer cars on the road, fewer flights, and less industrial output. Beijing and New Delhi even have the photos to prove it. So how will these changes affect the airline industry into the future?
Surprisingly, these changes might be here to stay. When the pandemic first hit, the global aviation industry came to a halt. Airlines were forced to ground their planes and cancel trips between nations, greatly cutting into their revenue. Many faced bankruptcies and had to turn to their home nations for bailouts just to survive. This gave nations around the world the chance to enforce their environmental expectations more stringently.
In Austria, the government made their bailout funds available only on the condition that Lufthansa’s Austrian Airlines greatly reduce their emissions by cutting domestic routes. The UK event went as far as including aviation emissions in their yearly carbon plan.
Other airlines are relying heavily on carbon offsetting plans but critics argue that these schemes don’t really address the problem of carbon emissions—they only cover it up. Meanwhile, some airlines have vowed to reduce their emissions by up to 50% by switching to sustainable aviation fuels produced from used cooking oils, plant oils, and other renewable fuels.
Whether the technology is there to make this a widespread practice is still unclear but as politicians, activists, and consumers around the globe put more pressure on the aviation industry to change, it’s impossible to hold tight to their environmentally unfriendly ways.
If airlines are as committed to reducing their carbon emissions as they’ve reported, it’s not inconceivable that they’ll be able to cut the carbon footprint in half over the next decade. After all, it’s not the first time they’ve taken big steps towards eco-friendly flights.
Since the 1960s, the aviation industry has produced airplanes that are far more efficient and environmentally friendly than before. Today’s planes are about 85% more efficient than they were a generation ago so it’s not impossible that airplane manufacturers could produce even more efficient planes that burn far fewer fossil fuels.
The UN currently has a plan in place to improve aircraft efficiency by 2% every year until 2050. This would amount to an additional 60% greater fuel efficiency but the steps to get there are not quite as clear. As more and more people gain the means to travel, passenger flights will only go up in volume, thereby increasing carbon output.
For now, the best means of reducing the aviation industry’s carbon footprint is by regulating their routes. As Austria has shown, it’s possible to limit domestic short-distance overhaul flights without negatively affecting passengers. With fewer planes in the air, the aviation industry has less of a chance to pollute the skies.
If you’re planning to fly soon but are concerned about your
carbon footprint, do some research ahead of time to track your flight’s carbon emissions.
Flight routes are set ahead of time and follow strict paths so it’s possible to
accurately measure the amount of fuel your flight will burn depending on where
you’re going and the type of plane you’ll be flying on.
There are many websites offering carbon emissions calculators that compute the distance and fuel consumption of your flight to estimate an approximate carbon output. We recommend the myclimate carbon emissions calculator, available here. It was created by the EU-based environmental research group, myclimate.
Their website is available in English, German, Italian, and French, and also offers information on various climate projects around the world. Their focus on education and actionable progress makes them one of the better calculators out there. For other sources, you can also head to these popular carbon emissions calculators:
These are all backed by international bodies are verified to have accurate and reliable data.
Before you even hit the skies, you can do your part to limit
carbon emissions by finding a flight with a lower footprint. Whereas a few
years ago it was difficult to track just how much carbon your flight would
create, you can quickly and easily look up the exact amount of CO2 produced for
every kilometer you’re in the air.
The fastest way is to just Google it. As you are booking flights, you’re probably already using Google to look up the best fare so why not take a glance at your flight’s emissions while you’re at it. Simply head on over to Google Flights to find all the details you need.
When you search for a flight through Google, the search engine allows you to sort through flights based on their emissions. To do so, click the “Sort by” tab in the top right corner and drop to the bottom. The last entry should show “carbon emissions”. Once you’ve selected the criteria, the flights will rearrange to show those with the lowest emissions first.
Additionally, you can search for carbon offset flights through the airlines’ websites. A carbon offset flight will be more expensive than a standard economy-class ticket but the extra fare goes to investments in renewable energies and green industries that plant forests. The flight will still create the same amount of CO2 but your money will at least go to improving the energy sector.
Although the aviation industry seems environmentally bleak today, there is some hope that airplane manufacturers could turn it all around within the next 50 years. Airbus has recently debuted plans for a net-zero airplane that runs entirely on hydrogen fuel. In fact, their plans include three different net-zero aircraft.
While these plans are still in their early stages, Airbus has endeavored to release the new environmentally-friendly planes by 2035. It will take investment, research, and patience to get them off the ground but, if possible, this could be the start of truly carbon-free travel.
The aviation industry has worked hard to create efficient and eco-friendly aircraft but it still has a long way to go. Considering that it’s responsible for nearly a billion tons of CO2 every year, it’s up to the industry to make crucial changes to improve the environment. For now, though, you can do your part by finding flights with the lowest emissions or by offsetting your footprint.