Later this year, the Glasgow Climate Summit will take place. One of its goals is to agree on drastic carbon cuts to reach the climate goals of the Paris Agreement. In the public discussion on climate change, aviation is often seen as one of the major drivers of carbon emissions – but is it really?

In this blog post, we are looking at where airlines stand in their efforts to decarbonize; and we are analyzing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on their emissions. We used Accenture’s Aviation Carbon Calculator for our analysis.

Airline emissions: Don’t be fooled by the statistics

You might be surprised to hear that, according to IATA, the aviation industry “only” accounted for approximately two to three per cent of global carbon-dioxide emissions in 2019. Although total carbon emissions seem rather small compared to other industries, aviation still stands out for several reasons.

First, climate change is affected by more than just CO2, and aviation’s total impact on the planet’s climate could be as high as five per cent when considering additional factors, such as nitrous oxides, contrails, and the high altitudes where emissions occur. Second, aviation serves a relatively small portion of the world population compared to other industries, so the emissions per user are much higher. Finally, whereas many other industries have been able to curb emissions over the last decade, international aviation has more than doubled its emissions since 1990.

COVID-19 halved COemissions

Rather unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 pandemic had a strong impact on airlines’ operations and therefore also on their emissions. Many planes were grounded and particularly long intercontinental routes, which are highly carbon intensive, were either discontinued or served less often. This had a significant effect on carbon emissions.

Compared to 2019, the total airline-related COemissions were more than halved in 2020 – from 870 million tons to 423 million tons. Interestingly, the number of flights was down by only 41 per cent – from 38.4 million to 22.6 million – in the same period. This shows the strong effect which discontinued long-haul flights had on airline carbon emissions.  

However, looking at the COemissions per available seat kilometer – a metric which measures the emission intensity – gives a more realistic picture of where airlines really stand in their efforts to decarbonize. As a rule of thumb, there is a regular reduction rate of approximately 1.5 per cent per year resulting from fleet renewal activities. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, many airlines parked their older aircrafts sooner than planned. This resulted in a slightly faster reduction of emissions per available seat kilometer; in 2020, the reduction rate was 2.2 per cent. However, this trend is not going to last as airlines started to reactivate large parts of their fleets as early as December 2020.

Big differences between airlines – and still much work to do

In another step, we analyzed which of the big airlines had the largest drop in emissions per available seat kilometer. We found that British Airways (BA) and Lufthansa (LH) are among the top performers; their emissions came down by 16% and 9%, respectively, between the first quarter of 2019 and the first quarter of 2021. The other airlines only managed to reduce their emissions by between 3 and 7 per cent over the same time period. 

While COemissions dropped dramatically in 2020, the rebound of the aviation industry will inevitably lead to higher emissions once again. Considering the COemissions per available seat kilometer, we found that, even at the height of the pandemic, airline emissions could only be reduced very moderately. Thus, our conclusion is that there is still a lot of work to do for airlines on their journey to becoming greener. 

Many airlines are on a good way already. They have used the disruptions caused by COVID-19 to speed up fleet renewal and reduce fuel consumption. In addition, sustainability is now an important concern for many travelers. In the future, passengers will not only look at price and convenience when booking a trip but will increasingly focus on an airline’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions.

In other words: There is no alternative to decarbonization for the aviation industry.

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What is the Accenture Aviation Carbon Calculator?

This tool provides transparent and reliable emissions estimations based on a range of different data sources; it is mainly used by our airline clients to estimate their carbon emissions. We also use the calculator internally at Accenture to provide our employees with a tool to choose the most sustainable flight option at the time of booking.  

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Jesko Neuenburg

Global Travel Sustainability Lead

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