Story at a glance

  • The airline industry is responsible for about 5 percent of human-made global warming.
  • A new study analyzes the carbon footprint per passenger on popular travel routes in the United States.
  • The authors found that allowing consumers to see their carbon emissions could encourage more environmentally friendly practices.

These days, most customers can go into a restaurant and see just how many calories they’re consuming — and in some cases, even how much of a carbon footprint they’re leaving behind. “So why can’t airlines do the same?” ask the authors of a new study.

"Credible and standardized emissions disclosures will help meet consumer demand for low-emissions flights, but will require collaborative efforts from regulators, airlines, travel search engines, and environmental organizations," concluded authors Xinyi Sola Zheng and Dan Rutherford. But "once in place, climate-informed consumer choices could accelerate the decarbonization of air travel from the supply side as well, as airlines see a payoff in offering more low-emissions options."


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The working paper published this month by the International Council on Clean Transportation analyzed itineraries for 20 flight routes to determine the highest, lowest and passenger-weighted average CO2 emissions per passenger. The trip from Los Angeles International Airport and John F. Kennedy Airport in New York was the most traveled domestic route in 2019 and averaged 360 kg of CO2 emissions per passenger. A trip from Atlanta to LAX averaged 248 kg of CO2 per passenger, while a trip from Boston to San Francisco averaged more than 400 kg of CO2 per passenger.

Different airlines and aircrafts also contributed to varying rates of emissions, with Alaska, Spirit and Frontier carrying some of the least emitting itineraries on a given route and America, Delta, United and JetBlue carrying higher emitting routes.  

"Emissions disclosure would raise consumer awareness of their carbon footprint and, more importantly, reward airlines that operate more fuel-efficient flights. Consumer preferences could reward airlines that lower emissions through strategies such as deploying newer, more fuel-efficient aircraft and improving load factor," conclude the authors. 


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If you have to go from point A to B via aircraft, however, what you want to know is the difference in CO2 emissions between different flights on the same route. The one-way emissions per passenger on flights from Orlando to Philadelphia varied by up to 80 percent, while flights from San Francisco to JFK varied by just less than 50 percent. On average, a change in flight could emit 63 percent less CO2 than the most-emitting itinerary on the same route and 22 percent less than the average. 

If you're worried about price, the analysis found that for 15 out of the 20 analyzed routes, the lowest-emitting itinerary also falls in the cheapest 25th percentile of cost, meaning that passengers can reduce their emissions by 55 percent on average while still choosing the cheapest flights. 

Research shows the airline industry is responsible for about 5 percent of human-made global warming, roughly half of which is generated by just 1 percent of the world’s population. Airlines have promised to cut emissions by using hydrogen-based fuels and carbon "off-sets," and NASA is even exploring the development of electric planes. Still, with climate change fueling wildfires and increasingly common extreme weather events, the drive to reduce carbon emissions is urgent. 


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Published on Jul 26, 2021