Airline Carbon Emissions Are Soaring Up, Up, and Away

Photo: Getty

All our family vacations, frequent flier miles, and time in the sky come at a cost to the planet. A report out Thursday shows that carbon dioxide emissions from commercial flights increased by more than 30 percent in 2018 compared to 2013. That’s bad news for the climate.

The working paper, published by the International Council on Clean Transportation, found that the total emissions from this sector equaled 918 million metric tons in 2018. That’s more than 2 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions. About a quarter of these emissions came from planes departing airports in U.S. and its territories (like Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands). Next on the list are China, the UK, Japan, and Germany. The rapid rise in emissions is 70 percent higher than current projections from the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization.

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The new report pulls data from national governments, international agencies, and OAG Aviation Worldwide, which collects data on the industry. The greenhouse gas emission estimate is based on nearly 39 million flights last year, including passenger aircraft and freight planes. The movement of passengers—you know, the flights you take to go visit your grandma or head to some tropical island—made up more than 80 percent of the emissions in 2018.

Unfortunately, planes are emitting more greenhouse gases at a time when it really needs to be emitting less. However, at least in the U.S., few other transportation options exist. Trains can take forever, and gas-powered cars are hardly a perfect alternative for the health of the planet.

This news comes as environmentalists put more pressure on the public regarding their flying habits. Take Swedish climate teen activist Greta Thunberg, who refused to fly to attend the UN Climate Action Summit in New York. Instead, she sailed on a high-speed carbon-free race boat to the U.S. The so-called flight shame movement has taken off throughout Europe, especially in Sweden where it’s called flygskam. People are realizing that their individual actions carry consequences—and our airplanes carry some serious ones for the planet.

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The International Air Transport Association has set a goal to improve fuel efficiency next year, as well as reduce net emissions by 50 percent come 2050, but the industry doesn’t look like it’s on the path to meet these goals. The technology better catch up because time is running out.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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