Carbon calculator: how taking one flight emits as much as many people do in a year
Even short-haul flights produce huge amounts of CO2, figures show
Taking a long-haul flight generates more carbon emissions than the average person in dozens of countries around the world produces in a whole year, a new Guardian analysis has found.
The figures highlight the disproportionate carbon footprint of those who can afford to fly, with even a short-haul return flight from London to Edinburgh contributing more CO2 than the mean annual emissions of a person in Uganda or Somalia.
2019 is forecast to be another record-breaking year for air travel, with passengers expected to fly a total of 8.1tn km, up 5% from last year and more than 300% since 1990.
Taking one return flight generates more CO2 than citizens of some countries produce in a year.
According to figures from German nonprofit Atmosfair, flying from London to New York and back generates about 986kg of CO2 per passenger. There are 56 countries where the average person emits less carbon dioxide in a whole year – from Burundi in Africa to Paraguay in South America.
But even a relatively short return trip from London to Rome carries a carbon footprint of 234kg of CO2 per passenger – more than the average produced by citizens of 17 countries annually.
The figures are averages taking into account which aircraft models are typically used on flight routes, and the estimated occupancy of seats on board those planes. The figures include only the CO2 generated by burning jet fuel, not any emissions embedded in the construction of the plane or any other greenhouse gases that might be produced, such as water vapour.
Aviation emissions could triple in the next three decades
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The aviation sector currently accounts for about 2% of global emissions, and is one of the fastest-growing polluters.
According to projections from researchers at Manchester Metropolitan University, emissions from the sector could more than double by 2050 even if planes become substantially more fuel-efficient and airlines save additional carbon by optimising their operations.
Under a less optimistic scenario, a lower level of fuel savings could lead emissions to triple by 2050.
“The increase in traffic has historically outpaced the improvements in technology,” says Dr John Broderick, who researches climate policy and international transport at the University of Manchester.
How can the aviation industry’s climate impact be regulated?
The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – the UN body responsible for limiting the carbon footprint from international air travel – is introducing a scheme aiming to offset emissions by allowing airlines to purchase carbon credits rather than burn less fossil fuels.
Broderick is sceptical of the scheme’s benefits. “You still have a plan to increase the size of the industry … at a time when we should be making substantial reductions in emissions, particularly from the rich parts of the world.”
When asked for comment for this story, the ICAO described it as “meaningless cherry-picking of unrelated data points”.
In 2019, almost 40m flights are expected to depart from airports worldwide – more than 100,000 trips per day.
Tim Alderslade, chief executive of Airlines UK, the industry association representing 13 UK carriers, said: “Airlines believe we need a strategy that meets the government’s ambition of promoting sustainable growth for our sector. Aviation has to earn the right to expand and that’s why we’re committed to halving our emissions by 2050, and working with national governments to agree an ambitious plan that can deliver a zero-carbon future.”
Environmental groups are calling on policymakers to constrain the total number of flights and limit further expansion of airports.
Policy proposals include a “frequent flyers’ levy” which would increase progressively with every flight a person takes in a year while minimising the impact on those who fly only occasionally.
“We don’t want to penalise hardworking families that perhaps travel abroad once a year for a holiday,” says Mike Childs, head of science, policy and research at Friends of the Earth UK.
Childs cited a 2014 survey by the Department for Transport which revealed that 15% of the UK’s population took 70% of flights.
“We need to recognise that aviation is a luxury and we need to share that luxury fairly.”
Credit and data sources
Emissions data for flight connections was sourced from atmosfair.de and takes into account factors such as the fuel efficiency of different plane models and the average passenger load factor in different regions of the world.
The emissions estimates given in this article represent averages across all aircraft types serving a given route. Individual airlines might operate more or less carbon efficient planes.
The Guardian’s interactive calculator covers the world’s 100 busiest airports and selected UK airports.
Global flight path data was sourced from flightradar24.com and excludes aircraft that do not share location data with Flightradar’s network of receivers.
Emissions projections were provided by Prof David Lee at Manchester Metropolitan University and are based on work by Fleming and Ziegler in ICAO’s 2016 environmental report.
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