Just How Bad Is Flying for the Climate?

As airports around Europe start to reopen many of us will start taking to the skies once again for business or pleasure. It’s no secret that flying is one of the most carbon-intensive aspects of our lives and many concerned individuals are giving it up altogether. But exactly how bad is it? And what can we do about it?

In 2018, air traffic accumulated 918 million metric tonnes of CO2 emissions which accounts for 2.4% of CO2 emissions from fossil fuels globally. That might not seem like too much but the industry is growing and growing fast meaning that percentage is rising just as fast. In fact, between 2013 and 2018, there was a massive 32% increase in emissions. The UN body responsible for aviation (ICAO) forecasted that these will triple by 2050. New research from the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT) actually found that the increase could be more than 1.5 times higher than what the UN estimated. At this rate, flying will contribute to 25% of all CO2 emissions by 2050.

It is also worth noting that flying contributes to the climate crisis in other ways than just through CO2 emissions. It is responsible for the release of other, harmful, greenhouse gases and water vapour which promotes further warming of the atmosphere. When you add all of these up, the impact of flying on climate breakdown is much more significant.

Air travel is by far the most polluting form of transportation. On a return flight between London and San Francisco, every passenger emits 5.5 tonnes of CO2 equivalent (all greenhouse gases). That is double the amount produced by a family car in a whole year. According to the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), a domestic flight in the UK emits 254g of CO2 for every kilometre travelled. A medium-sized petrol car with a single driver releases 192g of CO2 while an inter-city train and a bus only emit 41g and 28g per kilometre respectively.  

The CO2 equivalent emissions for each km a passenger travels (Credit BEIS/Defra/BBC)

As you can see from the graph above, domestic flights are responsible for higher emissions despite their shorter distances. In fact, the ICCT found that two-thirds of all flights in 2018 were domestic flights and contributed to 40% of all global passenger transport-related CO2 emissions. 

The ICCT report highlights a stark difference between richer and poorer countries and their share of CO2 emissions from aviation. Despite making up only 16% of the global population, “high-income countries” emitted 62% of all air-travel emissions in 2018. In fact, flights from US airports were responsible for around a quarter of CO2 emissions (two-thirds of these were domestic) that year. Meanwhile, countries in the “low-income” bracket were only responsible for 1% of aviation CO2 emissions. These figures continue to highlight the disproportionate and unjust realities of the climate crisis.

The industry is aware of the growing concerns people have about flying and their carbon footprints especially since Greta Thunberg refused to fly to last year’s climate negotiations. Fuel efficiency is improving and the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has implemented CO2 standards for new aircraft but the demand for flights and its trajectory for growth means that these steps are trivial. Carbon Offsetting schemes are also becoming increasingly popular where concerned passengers can pay for ways to counterbalance their CO2 emissions from past or upcoming flights. The money is normally used to help fund things like reforestation or renewable energy projects but their effectiveness is often questionable.

The truth is, many of us need to rethink our relationship with air travel and reduce flights significantly. Before booking a flight we need to seriously consider whether or not that flight is important and if the journey could be done by train or bus instead. Of course, this shift in culture cannot just come from the consumer. There needs to be better connectivity in and around countries. This means more routes and more options. 

Businesses and employers need to ask their employees to travel less especially where a Zoom call would suffice (the Coronavirus pandemic has shown us how much we can get done this way). They can allow and encourage their staff to combine business trips with holidays. This would be especially easier with more vacation leave or, ideally, shorter workweeks.

Catching a bus or a train instead of a flight often works out cheaper and faster for shorter distances once you take things like getting to and from the airport, checking in, security checks, and waiting for baggage into account. Trains and buses normally take you directly into city centres as opposed to airports well-outside the city. 

But why are flight tickets often so much cheaper than bus or, especially, train tickets? Plane tickets are so cheap despite being so expensive to run because the airline industry is heavily subsidised (often through taxpayer money). It is also an industry which is constantly being bailed out during times of financial hardship like the 2008 recession and the pandemic we’re currently living through. Many countries don’t even charge a tax on aviation fuel.

So we need a drastic change when it comes to air travel. We need to fly less but, to do so, governments and policymakers need to stop subsidising and saving yet another industry which is killing us. They need to start developing progressive and exciting systems which would make air travel the exception and not the rule.

Over the next few months, The Climate Herald will be publishing regular articles about the climate crisis based on scientific research and conversations with specialists in the field. We aim to shed light on how the climate crisis affects every aspect of our lives, what solutions are being proposed, and what needs to change in order for us to tackle the most pressing issue of our time.


  1. ‘Worse Than Anyone Expected’: Air Travel Emissions Vastly Outpace Predictions

  2. ICAO Global Environmental Trends – Present and Future Aircraft Noise and Emissions

  3. CO2 Emissions from Commercial Aviation, 2018

  4. Should we give up flying for the sake of the climate?

  5. Air travel is a huge contributor to climate change. A new global movement wants you to be ashamed to fly.

Author: JD Farrugia

JD has been working in project and campaign management roles since 2010, mostly within civil society but also in the private sphere, as well as the arts and culture sector. Some of these roles include: directing a CSO focused on sustainable fisheries, setting up and coordinating civil society programmes, and coordinating the programme of a community theatre. JD has an M.Sc in Environmental Management & Planning and a Bachelor's degree in Psychology, both from the University of Malta. He is currently involved in various projects related to environmental causes as well as artistic projects in Malta, North Macedonia and on a European level.



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