MIAMI – Aviation and the commercial airline industry, in particular, are often finger-pointed as having the greatest global share in CO² emissions but, when going through data published by different specialized sources, the picture looks different.

First, let’s take a look at the 2019 figures from atag.org.

  • Global flights CO² share stands at 915 million tonnes out of a total human produced CO² of 43 billion tonnes
  • People carried amounted at 4.5 billion, 2019 being the latest referenced year not influenced by the epidemic
  • Jobs supported by aviation and related tourism stands at 87.7 million out of which 11.3 million are air transport direct jobs
  • Airlines share of all human induced CO² stands at 2%
  • Aviation is responsible of 12% of CO² emisssions coming from all air transport sources against 74% produced by road transport
  • The volume of world shipments carried by air stands at 0.5% but air carriers transport 35% of value goods consisting in time perishable or sensitive commodities
  • Todays’ modern jets are over 80% more fuel efficient than those operated in 1960 when seats/kilometers are taken into account
  • Alternative fuels, including Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), have been identified with having the potential to reduce aviation fuel carbon footprint by 80%
  • 80% of CO² emissions comes from flights of over 1,500km (810nm) to destinations that do not have any other practical transport alternative
  • Seats occupancy in air transport stands at 82%, overhelmingly higher than in any other transportation mean
  • If aviation is compared to a country it would rank 17th in Gross Domestic Product (GDP) generating US$690bn x year. Forecasts for 2038 put aviation contribution to global GDP at US$1.7tn
  • When fuel consumption is compared, a modern Airbus A380 or A220, Boeing 787, ATR, or Embraer E2 uses 3lt of fuel per 100 passengers, matching a modern compact car
  • When noise is put under exam it results that the well renowned South African vuvuzela rates at 127 dB while an Airbus A380 at takeoff power rates at 82dB
  • Aviations jobs contribution to the global economy is 4.3 times higher than any other jobs
  • In 2050, aviation CO² emissions will be at 50% when compared to 2005
  • Between 2010 and 2020, airlines have spent US$1tn to purchase 12,000 new aircraft to reach the goal of 1.5% fuel efficiency per year
  • The retrofitting of winglets or sharklets on aircraft have avoided the production of 80m tonnes of CO²
  • The world counts 1478 airlines operating a total of 33,299 aircraft while serving 3,780 airport servicing a network of several millions of kilometers managed by 162 air navigation controlling authorities.
Photo: Brandon Farris/Airways
Chart: ourworldindata.org

Air Transport Activities and Growth


Another source of data, concerning the role of aviation in CO² emissions, comes from ourworldindata.org which treats the increase in CO² emissions compared to air travel growth. Compared to the past, emissions from aviation activities increased respectively seven-folds compared to 1950 and triple since 1960.

Air transport activities, both passengers and freight, emitted 1.04bl tonnes of CO² since 1940 representing, in 2018, 2.5% of total emissions. While growing to double since the middle of 1980, aviation emissions have remained very stable and in the range of 2 to 23.5% (See chart above).

Within the same period, passenger traffic volume, defined as Revenue Passenger per Kilometer (RPK), saw a much steeper growth of 300 folds when compared to the 50ties and 75 folds from the 60ties onward. The difference in growth between emissions and traffic stems from a massive increase in aircraft and fuel burn efficiency (See chart below).

The reasons behind this are improvements in the design and technology of aircraft, with larger capacity, a better understanding, and management of load factors, allowing to “fill up” passenger flights. As a result, load factors registered an increase from 61% in 1958 to 82%.

ACA B38M at YVR | Boeing 737-8 MAX. Photo: MIchal Mendyk/Airways
Chart: ourworldindata.org

Final Analysis


It is a fact that the transportation sector generates the largest share of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Omitting 2020, transportation accounted for 29% of GHG emissions in 2019, of which air transport accounted for only 2%, that is 0.0058% of total global emissions.

We hope to have given you sufficient material to ponder on how extensive the air transport industry’s contribution to carbon emissions is. It is our hope to help shed some light on this often misunderstood aspect of air travel.


Featured image: Virgin Atlantic Boeing 747-400 at Golden Hour. Photo: Johann Heske/Airways