Airports in the United States, China and the European Union are the main drivers of carbon emissions from commercial flights, according to a 2020 report by the International Clean Transport Council (ICCT). The organization’s researchers found that in the years leading up to the pandemic, these three entities produced more than half of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions related to passenger operations in 2019.
As world leaders gather at a climate summit in Glasgow this week, air travel emissions are just one of the ways regulators and industry can curb global warming.
The United States had the highest emissions related to passenger air travel in 2019, with more than 175 million metric tons of CO2 emissions. China produces more than 90 million metric tons, but is expected to become the world’s largest aviation market by 2050, surpassing the U.S. and Europe, according to Brandon Graver, senior aviation researcher at ‘ICCT and one of the authors of the 2020 report. The data included in this story includes more than 1,300 airports covering 99% of commercial passenger travel.
These targets often change, however, and with different international and domestic air travel regulators, there is little responsibility for ensuring that industries meet these emission reduction targets, Graver says.
(Alex Leeds Matthews / USNWR)
“It’s one thing to set a goal, it’s another to move forward and make sure you’re transparent with civil society about the progress you’re making,” he says. “Everyone makes goals and promises and then changes.”
The ICCT analysis excluded emissions from commercial air travel related to freight transport, which account for about 15%; the remaining 85% of emissions from commercial operations come from passenger transport, according to the report.
In 2019, the 10 highest-emitting airports produced an amount of carbon emissions equivalent to about 32 coal-fired power plants, or more than 63 million passenger vehicles. These are mostly hubs, responsible for so many emissions due to the number of flights circulating there, according to Graver.
However, these busiest airports are not necessarily the least green. Different aircraft, flight duration and other factors cause many smaller airports to produce more carbon emissions per passenger per kilometer traveled.
While some airports may boast of their carbon reduction efforts or describe themselves as carbon neutral, Graver says, these claims often do not take into account actual passenger transportation. Rather, they may depend on limited airport activities, such as energy use at the terminal or aircraft circulating on the runway.
Despite technological improvements to improve fuel efficiency, increased demand for air travel has prevented these reduced emissions from making a big difference. Still, he believes that if industries, consumers and regulators are put on the table, it is possible to achieve emission reduction targets.
“I’m young … I’m still optimistic that by working together, we can really achieve this,” he says of the goals to reduce carbon emissions from air travel. “I hope my kids can fly and see the world like I do and not worry about the climate impact.”