Examining the Biggest Polluters: Report Card of Aviation Industry

Highlights :

  • The aviation industry is responsible for nearly 3 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions
  • Global air transport industry aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050
Examining the Biggest Polluters: Report Card of Aviation Industry

Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions and, hence, one of the biggest polluters driving global climate change. The kind of energy that will be required to launch a 300-ton plane into the sky at 500 mph (805 kmph) will naturally be large. This makes air travel one of the most carbon-intensive activities an individual can undertake.

For instance, consider a passenger travelling via a flight from New York to London and back. On average, that person will be responsible for emissions more than an average person in Paraguay over an entire year. From 100 million passengers travelling by air in 1960, the industry grew to 4.56 billion by 2019. As per WWF, the number will rise to around 8.2 billion by 2025. The international NGO further notes that without any action, emissions from the growing industry could triple from pre-COVID levels by 2050. The expected 2021-2050 carbon emissions on a ‘business as usual’ trajectory is approximately 21.2 gigatons of CO2.

In any case, for the world to achieve carbon neutrality, it is important to cut down the emission rates from its biggest polluters. Bringing down the emissions from the Aviation industry will be of utmost importance for the change in energy use the world needs so dearly. Fuel consumption by the industry is a direct indicator of CO2 emissions. According to the October 2021 International Air Transport Association (IATA) report, worldwide airline industry jet fuel usage was 359 billion litres (95 billion gallons) in 2019.

We bring under the spotlight the emission status of the Aviation Industry and the measures the stakeholders have been taking to curb the menace of emissions from one of the biggest polluters in the industrial sectors.

Share in the Global Pollution

The airline industry is responsible for nearly 3 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions, as per World Economic Forum. For a perspective, if we consider that the global commercial aviation industry was a country, it would rank number six in the world – between Japan and Germany – in national GHG emissions standings in 2019.

Passenger air travel was responsible for over 80 per cent of emissions due to global commercial aviation, as the freight generated the rest. Although emissions from commercial aviation worldwide grew at a slower pace than the growth of the industry in the last two decades, emissions accelerated in recent years as increasing commercial air traffic continued to raise the industry’s contribution to global emissions. The total emissions from Aviation reached 920 million tons in 2019.

Measures to Reduce Carbon Footprint

Although, the global air transport industry is at the forefront in striving to reduce carbon emissions. The industry aims to halve its CO2 emissions by 2050 against a 2005 benchmark.

To reach this goal, a holistic approach is necessary by the industrial stakeholders beyond aircraft operations and production alone.

The intergovernmental policies and measures will be the backbone of the industry in going green as multinational efforts are imminent to reduce global emissions due to the aviation industry.

IATA Driving the Industry

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) 77th Annual General Meeting, last year, approved a resolution for the global air transport industry to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, in line with the objectives of the Paris agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C. IATA, a trade association of the world’s airlines, is at the helm of change in the aviation industry.

International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) will be a key immediate enabler in achieving the net-zero emissions target. This will stabilize international emissions at 2019 levels in the short-to-medium term.

Efforts by Key Industrial Players

The stakeholders in Aviation Industry consider several ways to achieve net zero emission goals – sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), carbon offsets, direct capture, electric and hydrogen energy. With several possible ways in sight, the industrial action agendas are divided.


Cost of availability creates hindrance for SAF. It is made from renewable sources – plants or used cooking oil. Countries like the US are considering subsidies to bring prices down and supplies up. Some airlines are also blending small amounts into their fuel. Industry major Boeing is studying the efficacy of pure SAF for a use in the industry. The firm has committed to ensuring its planes are certified for 100% SAF by 2030.

Direct capture

Direct capture of emissions is also considered by some. American United Airlines, for example, is betting on direct air capture (DAC) technology that would suck carbon dioxide directly out of the atmosphere and store it underground. The technology is still under development. The U.S. airline hopes to become the world’s first commercial direct air capture facility with a capacity to remove 1 million tons of CO2 from the air annually. Notably, several such efforts have failed in the past.


The industrial players are speculating on using batteries to power planes, the same as EVs. Although battery technology has been a game changer for EVs, the technology is still far from commercial use – that much battery would be too heavy to carry. Rolls-Royce held a 15-minute test flight of a small electric plane in September 2021, calling it a “milestone on the aviation industry’s journey towards decarbonization”. The British firm expects flying taxis for short distances within a few years.


The case of Hydrogen as a fuel is blurry as well. The proponents for hydrogen are still not nonexistent. The European Airbus committed to developing the world’s first commercial aircraft fueled by gas by 2035.

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Junaid Shah

Junaid holds a Master of Engineering degree in Construction & Management. Being a civil engineering postgraduate and using his technical prowess, he has channeled his passion for writing in the environmental niche.