Airlines Have Cut CO2 Emissions Per Passenger By 50% Since 1990 – Here’s How

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The carbon cost of transporting passengers by air has halved since 1990. That’s according to a report from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), which shows that airlines are benefitting from the massive increases in fuel efficiency that aircraft manufacturers have achieved over the years.

Airlines CO2
Airlines have cut CO2 per passenger by 50% since 1990. Photo: Getty Images

How did they do it?

Airlines have reduced their per passenger CO2 emissions by 50% since 1990. IATA states that much of the improvement is down to fuel efficiency improvements.

According to the ICCT, the average fuel burn of new aircraft fell by 45% between 1968 and 2014. That’s an annual reduction in fuel consumption of 1.3%. However, this improvement was not constant. In fact, during the 1980s and early 90s, fuel efficiency improved on average 2.6% each year, while during the 1970s there was little to no improvement at all.

This uplift in efficiency improvements is attributed to the aggressive adoption of new technologies, along with more efficient aircraft design principles. As the most progress was made in the 1980s, these new aircraft and technologies gradually became more widespread, laying the foundations for a decade of CO2 reductions in the 90s.

Bamboo Airways 787 inside
The Dreamliner broke new ground in terms of aircraft design. Photo: Bamboo Airways

Another landmark came in 2010, when fuel efficiency began to accelerate once again. The certification and delivery to ANA of the world’s first 787 Dreamliner in 2011 marked a step-change in aircraft design. Improved engine technologies and the use of composite materials made this the most efficient aircraft in the skies, a title it held until Airbus came back in 2014 with the A350-900.

However, none of this development would make an ounce of difference if it wasn’t for airlines being willing to invest in fleet renewal. The European Commission’s European Aviation Environmental Report 2019 shows that, across the board, airlines strive to keep their fleets young.

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In Europe, the average age of aircraft across all sectors is 10.8 years. In the low-cost sector, it averages just 8 years. IATA says airlines have invested more than $1 trillion in new aircraft since 2009.

As well as flying more efficient aircraft, airlines are flying more efficiently too. Whereas, in the 90s, the hub and spoke model of air transport reigned supreme, today networks are much more about point to point transportation. Fewer connections mean fewer takeoffs and landings, which means less fuel burned per trip.

American Airlines Transcontinental 787 Economy
Packing more pax means lower fuel burn per person. Photo American Airlines

Finally, the way these airlines accommodate their passengers has also improved, at least from a CO2 perspective. Aircraft seats have shrunk, legroom has dwindled and airlines are abandoning sprawling first class suites in favor of space-efficient alternatives. While this might not be so popular with the passengers, it does mean more people are moved on every trip, thereby reducing the associated fuel consumption.

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Not stopping there

Despite the clear progress already being made by airlines, IATA is not ready to say that’s enough. Indeed, back in 2009, the association set out three distinct goals for reducing CO2 emissions from aviation. These were:

  1. Improving fuel efficiency by an average of 1.5% per year from 2009 to 2020
  2. Limiting net aviation CO2 emissions after 2020 and facilitating carbon neutral growth
  3. Achieving a 50% reduction in aviation CO2 emissions by 2050 compared to 2005 levels

The first of those goals has already been achieved. IATA states that, between 2009 and this year, the aviation sector’s fuel efficiency improvement comes in at an average of 2.3%, some 0.8% above target.

CORSIA states
The CORSIA states – green are voluntarily signed up, yellow are exempt. Photo: IATA

The second is a trickier nut to crack, but something IATA and the ICAO have already put measures in place to achieve. CORSIA, an international carbon offsetting scheme for aviation, has begun its slow rollout, and is set to be complemented in the near future by a much greater uptake of sustainable aviation fuels.

Reducing CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050 will be a tough call, but it’s not impossible. IATA’s Director General and CEO Alexandre de Juniac commented on this, saying,

“Cutting per passenger emissions in half is an amazing achievement of the technical expertise and innovation in the aviation industry. But we have even bigger ambitions. From 2020 we will cap net emissions. And by 2050 we will cut emissions to half 2005 levels. Accomplishing these targets means continued investment in new technology, sustainable fuels, and operational improvements.”

Do you think aviation can halve its carbon footprint by 2050? Let us know in the comments.

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