In its first analysis of the carbon impact of premium (first and business) class seating, the International Council for Clean Transportation (ICCT) estimates nearly 20% of emissions from commercial aviation were attributable to premium passengers in 2019, higher than the 15% coming from air freight transport. Premium seating was estimated to be up to 4.3 times more CO2 intensive than economy seating. The ICCT study for the years 2013, 2018 and 2019 also found global commercial air traffic increased nearly four times faster than fuel efficiency improvement between 2013 and 2019, with passenger aircraft CO2 emissions increasing by a third during the period. The three largest aviation markets – the United States, the European Union and China – were together responsible for 55% cent of CO2 emissions in 2019.
Merging data from ICAO, OAG and individual airlines using Lissys’ Piano 5 software, ICCT’s Global Aviation Carbon Assessment model calculated commercial aviation (passenger and cargo) CO2 emissions rose from 706 million tonnes (Mt) in 2013 to 920 Mt in 2019, figures close to the industry’s own estimates. Passenger transport accounted for 785 Mt, or 85%, of commercial aviation CO2 emissions in 2019, with the remaining 15% (135 Mt) from freight carriage that was divided between belly freight on passenger aircraft (8%) and dedicated freighter operations (7%).
The top five departure countries for passenger aviation-related carbon emissions in 2019 were the United States (with a 23% share), China (13%), the United Kingdom (4.1%), Japan (3.3%) and Germany (2.9%). While still the largest, the US market is growing more slowly over time than the rest of the world and is the most carbon intensive of the major markets, emitting 12 per cent more CO2 per RPK than the global average.
Globally, two-thirds of all flights in 2019 were domestic but only accounted for around one-third of global RPKs and 40% of global passenger transport-related CO2 emissions. CO2 emissions from international flights increased by 35% between 2013 and 2019, outpacing the 30% increase in emissions from domestic flights.
Between 2013 and 2019, the total number of flight departures worldwide increased by 23%, RPKs increased 50% and passenger transport-related emissions by 33%. ICCT’s analysts found that RPKs correlate well with CO2 emissions after accounting for improvements in fuel efficiency. That RPKs increased faster than emissions during this period suggests that fuel efficiency improved, resulting in a 12% decrease in carbon intensity.
On average, global commercial aircraft operations emitted 90 grams of CO2 per RPK in 2019, which was 2% lower than in 2018 and 12% lower than in 2013. While domestic operations are included, the change is in line with ICAO’s aspirational goal of 2% fuel efficiency improvement annually for international aviation.
Flights within the regions of Asia/Pacific and Europe saw the largest intra-region increase in passenger CO2 emissions since 2013, at 50% and 35% respectively. Emissions in several regions grew slower than the global average: Middle East, 27%; Africa, 21%; and Latin America/Caribbean, 19%. The smallest growth in passenger emissions for a major market, 16%, was observed for flights within North America.
The least efficient route groups between 2013 and 2019 were flights within Africa and within the Middle East, emitting more than 30% more CO2 to transport one passenger one kilometre than the global average. This was primarily due to the use of older, fuel-inefficient aircraft and low passenger load factors. However, there were improvements in fuel efficiency of 4-5% for these route groups from 2018 to 2019, higher than the global average yearly increase in fuel efficiency between 2013 and 2019.
The largest gains in fuel efficiency between 2013 and 2019 were for flights between the Asia/Pacific and Latin America/Caribbean regions, which can be credited to the replacement of Airbus A340 and Boeing 767 aircraft with more fuel-efficient Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Flights departing a US airport had an average CO2 intensity 6% higher than the global average.
Around 61% of passenger transport emissions in 2019 came from international aviation, although domestic flights made up two-thirds of all departures. Together, the United States and China were responsible for 185 Mt of CO2 from domestic flights, or over 60% of emissions from global domestic operations in 2019, which was an increase of 31% since 2013.
Responsible for 39% of global passenger CO2 emissions, domestic aviation falls outside the jurisdiction of ICAO and the report’s authors suggest national and regional measures and policies are needed to curb emissions from this important part of the air transport sector.
They say the study highlights the significant differences in the carbon intensity of flights at all levels: market, aircraft class, aircraft type and seating class.
“Better emissions disclosure, for example requiring airlines to disclose the carbon intensity of each itinerary to consumers at the time of purchase, would help consumers steer their business to lower emitting carriers,” they recommend.
Additionally, they suggest carbon pricing for aviation could be improved and made more equitable by properly reflecting the emissions due to premium travel, with fees graduated based upon seating class so that premium travellers pay more and help generate revenue for climate mitigation in a progressive way.