It has been widely reported that CO2 emissions from air transport are growing steadily and, based on estimates of other sectors decarbonising rapidly, are forecast to account for anywhere between 12% and 27% of global emissions by 2050 - from around 2.3% in 2019 - unless radical action is taken.

Using our proprietary emissions model, we’ve been able to estimate the CO2 emissions from commercial air transport during 2020 to see what impact the Covid pandemic has had on the sector’s emissions inventory. Our bottom-up analysis of scheduled flights shows that, after a decade of emissions increasing at an average annual growth rate of 4.1%, 2020 is likely to see output drop by a minimum of 45%, to levels we’ve not seen since beginning our annual analysis back in 2009.

CO2 Total Emissions Our initial assessment shows commercial air transport CO2 emissions for the year of around 480MT, which compares to 875MT in 2019.

It’s been a bleak year for the travel industry, with airlines, airports and accommodation providers bearing the brunt of international travel bans and hugely subdued demand. The shape of the recovery will be patchy, with intercontinental long-haul likely to take longer to recover than domestic and short-haul flying, meaning the emissions curve is unlikely to return to the pre-pandemic levels for a number of years. That said, we expect to see demand for travel - and therefore emissions - growing again in 2021.

With IATA aiming for industry emissions to be 50% of 2005 levels by a 2050 deadline, looking at the shape of aviation in 2020 gives us a good idea of how few flights would need to be operating to hit this sort of figure unless sustainable alternative fuel sources can be developed in the coming years.

But, to put these numbers into context, global aviation emissions in a typical year are similar to those generated by Europe’s road vehicles, while in 2020, global aviation emissions are below those created by private car use in the EU. Re-fuelling the whole of the transport industry is a de-carbonisation challenge, not just aviation.

Banner image by USGS on Unsplash


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