Major airlines say they’re acting on climate change. Our research reveals how little they’ve achieved


Susanne Becken, Griffith University

If you’re a traveller who cares about reducing your carbon footprint, are some airlines better to fly with than others?

Several of the world’s major airlines have announced plans to become “carbon neutral”, while others are trialling new aviation fuels. But are any of their climate initiatives making much difference?

Those were the questions we set out to answer a year ago, by analysing what the world’s largest 58 airlines – which fly 70% of the total available seat-kilometres – are doing to live up to their promises to cut their climate impact.

The good news? Some airlines are taking positive steps. The bad news? When you compare what’s being done against the continued growth in emissions, even the best airlines are not doing anywhere near enough.

More efficient flights still drive up emissions

Our research found three-quarters of the world’s biggest airlines showed improvements in carbon efficiency – measured as carbon dioxide per available seat. But that’s not the same as cutting emissions overall.

One good example was the Spanish flag carrier Iberia, which reduced emissions per seat by about 6% in 2017, but increased absolute emissions by 7%.



For 2018, compared with 2017, the collective impact of all the climate measures being undertaken by the 58 biggest airlines amounted to an improvement of 1%. This falls short of the industry’s goal of achieving a 1.5% increase in efficiency. And the improvements were more than wiped out by the industry’s overall 5.2% annual increase in emissions.

This challenge is even clearer when you look slightly further back. Industry figures show global airlines produced 733 million tonnes of CO₂ emissions in 2014. Falling fares and more people around wanting to fly saw airline emissions rise 23% in just five years.

What are the airlines doing?

Airlines reported climate initiatives across 22 areas, with the most common involving fleet renewal, engine efficiency, weight reductions and flight path optimisation. Examples in our paper include:

  • Singapore Airlines modified the Trent 900 engines on their A380 aircraft, saving 26,326 tonnes of CO₂ (equivalent to 0.24% of the airline’s annual emissions);
  • KLM’s efforts to reduce weight on board led to a CO₂ reduction of 13,500 tonnes (0.05% of KLM’s emissions).
  • Etihad reports savings of 17,000 tonnes of CO₂ due to flight plan improvements (0.16% of its emissions).


Nineteen of the 58 large airlines I examined invest in alternative fuels. But the scale of their research and development programs, and use of alternative fuels, remains tiny.

As an example, for Earth Day 2018 Air Canada announced a 160-tonne emissions saving from blending 230,000 litres of “biojet” fuel into 22 domestic flights. How much fuel was that? Not even enough to fill the more than 300,000-litre capacity of just one A380 plane.

Carbon neutral promises

Some airlines, including Qantas, are aiming to be carbon neutral by 2050. While that won’t be easy, Qantas is at least starting with better climate reporting; it’s one of only eight airlines addressing its carbon risk through the systematic Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures process.

About half of the major airlines engage in carbon offsetting, but only 13 provide information on measurable impacts. Theses include Air New Zealand, with its FlyNeutral program to help restore native forest in New Zealand.

That lack of detail means the integrity of many offset schemes is questionable. And even if properly managed, offsets still avoid the fact that we can’t make deep carbon cuts if we keep flying at current rates.




Read more:
Flight shame won’t fix airline emissions. We need a smarter solution


What airlines and governments need to do

Our research shows major airlines’ climate efforts are achieving nowhere near enough. To decrease aviation emissions, three major changes are urgently needed.

  1. All airlines need to implement all measures across the 22 categories covered in our report to reap any possible gain in efficiency.

  2. Far more research is needed to develop alternative aviation fuels that genuinely cut emissions. Given what we’ve seen so far, these are unlikely to be biofuels. E-fuels – liquid fuels derived from carbon dioxide and hydrogen – may provide such a solution, but there are challenges ahead, including high costs.

  3. Governments can – and some European countries do – impose carbon taxes and then invest into lower carbon alternatives. They can also provide incentives to develop new fuels and alternative infrastructure, such as rail or electric planes for shorter trips.

How you can make a difference

Our research paper was released late last year, at a World Travel and Tourism Council event linked to the Madrid climate summit. Activist Greta Thunberg famously sailed around the world to be there, rather than flying.

Higher-income travellers from around the world have had a disproportionately large impact in driving up aviation emissions.



This means that all of us who are privileged enough to fly, for work or pleasure, have a role to play too, by:

  1. reducing our flying (completely, or flying less)
  2. carbon offsetting
  3. for essential trips, only flying with airlines doing more to cut emissions.

To really make an impact, far more of us need to do all three.




Read more:
Climate explained: how much does flying contribute to climate change?


The Conversation


Susanne Becken, Professor of Sustainable Tourism and Director, Griffith Institute for Tourism, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Without a global deal, US curbs on airline emissions are hot air


David Hodgkinson, University of Western Australia and Rebecca Johnston, University of Notre Dame Australia

The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) last week issued a “proposed finding” that greenhouses gases from aviation pose a danger to the health and welfare of current and future generations. It could pave the way for regulations to limit domestic US aircraft emissions – but there are plenty of hurdles still to jump before that happens.

The EPA already regulates aircraft pollution such as engine smoke, hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide – and has done so for more than 30 years. So on the face of it, its new finding that greenhouse gases “may reasonably be anticipated to endanger public health and welfare” makes it sound like it will be a straightforward matter to add carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to the list.

Using the EPA to rule on emissions-reduction issues is a tactic that the Obama administration has used several times recently. The new finding on aviation follows similar reports on emissions from road haulage
and power plants.

High-flying problems

Aviation is the most emissions-intensive form of transport, and also the fastest-growing source of emissions in the transport sector. What’s more, those emissions are essentially unregulated. This means that emissions from aviation are increasing against a background of decreasing emissions (or at least, against a background of emissions regulation) from many other industry sectors.

Based on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calculations, aviation accounts for about 3% of global greenhouse emissions, although the figure could be as low as 2% or as high as 8%. If the aviation industry was a country, its carbon dioxide emissions would be ranked about 7th, between Germany and South Korea.

Air travel continues to grow at 4-5% per year, and although emissions from domestic flights are regulated under many countries’ existing greenhouse gas targets, international aviation emissions are not covered by any agreement.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, emissions from international flights are the responsibility of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). Aviation is excluded from international climate policy; the problem is left to the industry to resolve, and none of the more than 3,500 bilateral air service agreements in place across the world addresses the question of emissions.

A UK study found that even if the expanding industry were to implement the “maximum feasible reductions” in emissions through changes to technology and operating procedures, total emissions from the sector may still roughly double by 2050, depending on growth.

Learning from Europe’s aviation debacle

The new US regulations will not attempt to include overseas airlines in its regulatory reach – something the European Union tried and failed when it attempted to incorporate overseas airlines into its Emissions Trading Scheme from 2012.

To head off that action, the US Congress in 2011 passed legislation, which President Obama signed, prohibiting US aircraft operators from participating in the EU scheme, essentially making it illegal for US airlines to comply with EU law.

The result was that the EU backed down, and announced that it would freeze the inclusion of international aviation in its ETS, offering instead to “stop the clock” and allow the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to address the problem of regulation.

This time around, the US regulations would apply to private and scheduled flights on domestic routes, as well as international flights by US carriers, but not to non-US airlines flying routes into the United States.

This may sound like progress, particularly for a country with such a large domestic aviation market. But there is yet another reason why this is only progress on paper, for now.

I’ll do it if you do it

The US EPA has stated that its proposed regulations will only be implemented if international standards for emissions are agreed by ICAO. That’s a problem, because since 1997 the ICAO has failed to agree on any kind of solid approach to the issue.

In 2013, the ICAO Assembly reached a consensus agreement to proceed with a roadmap towards a decision on a global market-based mechanism at the next assembly in 2016, for implementation in 2020. It is the kind of “agreement to agree” that the world is growing rather used to on matters of climate policy.

EPA Office of Transportation and Air Quality director Christopher Grundler said that the United States wants to wait until there are international standards, because this “will achieve the most reductions [in emissions]”. And Airlines for America’s Nancy Young has described it as “critical” for the industry that agreement should be international.

On one view, then, this is simply the illusion of progress. It suggests that the US regulations are a long way from coming into force, given that the rest of the world – through the ICAO – is making no real or immediate progress.

The reality is that implementation of rules to hold the aviation industry to account for its emissions is still years away.

The Conversation

David Hodgkinson is Associate Professor at University of Western Australia.
Rebecca Johnston is Adjunct Lecturer, Law School at University of Notre Dame Australia.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.