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Aviation’s addiction to growth is overriding its ability to lower emissions

Google’s carbon metrics reveal an industry with a complicated relationship with CO2.

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Release Date
October 20, 2021
Aviation's addiction to growth is overriding its ability to lower emissions
Aviation has a complicated relationship with carbon dioxide. The byproduct responsible for a large portion of climate change, CO2 is an inevitable consequence of burning hydrocarbons — the only viable source to power commercial aviation since its dawn.

Choosing to travel by air remains one of the most impactful decisions an individual can make regarding their individual carbon footprint — a term first coined by British Petroleum in a 2003 advertisement.

Globally, aviation remains a growth industry. Fluctuating between 2% and 2.5% of global CO2 emissions across all industries since 2000, aviation has more than doubled in revenue passenger kilometers flown while matching the growth of the world’s economies in emissions. That aviation has remained such a relatively small, but highly visible, portion of the 36 gigatons of annual carbon output is matched by the uncomfortable reality that emissions from other sectors have increased proportionately along with aviation.

Related: Climate challenge to aviation sets huge expectations for sustainable fuels

Even as the historic successes by aviation in consistently reducing fuel burn per passenger and, in turn, carbon emissions, the “failure” has been in aviation’s unwillingness to control its growth. Global growth has steadily outpaced the efficiency benefit of new technology with the addition of new flying at ever-higher rates. As fuel consumption has fallen, so has the cost of flying to levels that have unlocked air travel for a larger portion of the world’s population.

Long term industry trends in aircraft size and economics in mature and established markets are informing new consumer behaviors around the purchase of air travel with new search features from Google. This TAC Analysis looks at the big picture of aviation’s contribution to global carbon emissions.

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