Airline industry releases shocking emissions tally

The International Air Transport Association, the Paris-based group that counts the world’s airlines as members, has unveiled the first snapshot of its projected carbon emissions from air travel. Through 2040, the group projects that the industry will generate 57 billion metric tons of carbon, amounting to 1.2 percent of global emissions. That is significant, as the industry is currently a massive energy consumer and a major driver of carbon emissions. But it is just one of the pieces of information in what the IATA calls its “global and regional projections and best practices report,” which draws on the group’s carbon footprint calculator to construct a model that defines the industry’s carbon emissions.

The IATA figures include the seven largest airlines within the organization, which together account for more than 80 percent of global airline traffic. That means the calculations include aviation within China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with North America and Europe comprising the bulk of airline travel. As a result, the European Union is expecting its continent-wide emissions will total 16.7 billion metric tons of carbon by 2040, representing 5.1 percent of world emissions.

The IATA’s model is valuable because it ranks global emissions by sector, taking into account fuel consumption for each flight that flew over any given region, as well as carbon released during flight and recovery on descent. The group also adjusts each country’s carbon emissions for its average population and income levels. The three categories of industry — air passenger, freight, and cargo — each have their own rankings. Compared to North America, for example, Europe ranks as a significant positive contributor to carbon emissions in the period from 2018 to 2040. The IATA’s model also includes projections of new technology that might accelerate demand, and includes this year’s flight caps that both sides of the Atlantic will be using in 2019.

Of course, the airline industry is a highly polluting industry, and will be increasingly so. Major new fuel-efficient aircraft, of which Boeing has a dozen on order, and other technologies are developing in the field, but so far, all have garnered, in aggregate, far more attention than carbon-reducing measures. Finally, the IATA’s model assumes a carbon price of $70 per metric ton by 2040, which represents a 6 percent decrease from this year’s price. Assuming that price holds over the medium term — the upshot of which is that the IATA’s emissions forecasts are low, given overall emissions growth — the carbon cost of a trip will be $44, on average, which on $35 per megaton of carbon will barely make a dent in the overall cost of flying.

What is the airline industry getting on with? It needs to create a plan to get on with. Until then, however, it is pathetically late.

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