New technology and sustainable fuels result in 50% drop in passenger carbon emissions

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), carbon emissions per passenger have declined by over 50% since 1990.

Much of this improvement can be attributed to the air industry achieving an annual fuel efficiency improvement of 2.3% since 2009, around 0.8 percentage points ahead of the target. This progress is due to investments in more efficient aircraft, the use of sustainable fuels, as well as operational efficiencies.

"Cutting per passenger emissions in half is an amazing achievement of the technical expertise and innovation in the aviation industry,” commented Alexandre de Juniac, IATA's director general and CEO. “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.”

Global airlines have invested around $1 trillion (€897.8 billion) in new aircraft since 2009, and have also signed forward purchase agreements for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) worth approximately $6 billion (€5.4 billion).

Moreover, the introduction of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, or CORSIA, will ensure carbon-neutral growth on international flights from 2020, raising around $40 billion (€36 billion) in climate finance in the process.

CORSIA is estimated to reduce emissions by around 2.5 billion tonnes over the lifetime of the scheme. However, IATA warned that the introduction of a ‘patchwork’ of carbon taxes by governments could compromise the scheme; in recent months, a series of proposals to levy air passenger taxes have been made in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland.

De Juniac warned: "Taxation aimed at stopping people from exercising their freedom to fly will make travel more expensive but do very little to reduce emissions. It is a politician's feel-good solution, without taking responsibility for the negative impact it has on the economy or the mobility restrictions it imposes on people with lower incomes.”

In the long term, the sector must aim to reduce emissions through the use of cleaner technology. This will require a financially sound airline sector capable of funding the investments needed to make flying more sustainable, such as investment in SAF.

"Governments must focus their efforts correctly,” de Juniac concluded. “Flying drives prosperity. It is not the enemy. Cutting carbon must at the forefront. And government leadership is needed to incentivise the commercialisation of sustainable aviation fuels, drive efficiencies in air traffic management and support research into next generation low-carbon energy sources.”