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  • Writer's pictureElle Eyestone

The Energy Impact of the Aviation Industry



Written by: Elle Eyestone

Edited by: Sophie Wisden


In the face of a rapidly worsening climate crisis, one topic has become prominent in public discourse: the aviation industry. For some, a commercial flight is an unacceptable use of emissions – recall Greta Thunberg’s famous decision to sail across the Atlantic instead of flying commercially (Irfan, 2019). Additionally, a huge concern for many people is the private jet industry. A common criticism of many celebrities such as Taylor Swift, Kylie Jenner, Jay-Z, and Travis Scott is their exceptionally high private jet usage. The various criticisms of the aviation industry has sparked debate about the true magnitude of the industry’s emissions. Are we harming the environment when we go on our European getaways? Is it really that bad to fly home for reading week? Are our favorite celebrities really killing the planet? 


According to the International Energy Association (IEA), aviation accounted for 2% of global energy-related CO2 emissions in 2022 (Kim and Teter, n.d.). This level of emissions is only about 80% of the level of average emissions before COVID-19; the change is attributed to new technical measures, such as low-emission fuels and engine improvements (Kim and Teter, n.d.). 


These numbers may seem low. 2% of global energy-related emissions is not that much – right? Well, an important consideration is who is flying. The United States (US) in particular is a large contributor to aircraft greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (Environmental Protection Agency, 2017). According to the EPA, in 2022 the US aviation industry accounted for 29% of all GHG emissions from all global aircrafts (Environmental Protection Agency, 2017). However, the US is not alone in their high production of aviation related GHG emissions. Countries such as China, the United Kingdom (UK), Japan, Germany, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are high airplane-related emitters as well (Hasan et al. 2021). In these countries with higher GDPs, half of the population tend to fly each year, with around 15% people being considered frequent fliers (Timperley, 2022). For those of us that take several flights in a year, let's put it into context. Flying from London to Berlin emits about 0.6 tonnes of CO2 (Timperley, 2022). This amount of CO2 effectively cancels out three years worth of emissions reduced by recycling (Timperley, 2022). Flying from San Francisco to London (a long, yet frequently traveled route) emits 5.5 tonnes of CO2 per person on the plane – this is more than double the emissions produced by an average family car in one year (Timperley, 2022). 


Private jets are a whole additional layer of this conversation. Private planes are up to 14 times as polluting per passenger as a commercial plane (Saner, 2023). About 40% of private flights are mostly empty, simply flying to get the plane to where it needs to be to pick up its passenger(s) (Saner, 2023). The US accounts for the vast majority of private jet usage, followed by the UK and France (Saner, 2023). This abundance of jet usage has sparked public outrage at private jet users (Saner, 2023). Airbus Corporate Jets conducted a study in 2022 that showed 65% of the largest US-based companies interviewed using private jets (Saner, 2023). Taylor Swift’s plane emitted more than 8,000 tonnes of carbon in 2022; Floyd Mayweather Jr, Jay-Z, and Drake followed closely behind Swift in the 2022 rankings (Saner, 2023). The popular account, CelebJets, tracks and reports on celebrity jet usage in real time (Saner, 2023). This account, while praised for holding the wealthy accountable, has been criticized for its failure to protect the privacy of those aboard the private flights (Saner, 2023). Elon Musk previously suspended the CelebJets twitter account, and more recently, Taylor Swift’s legal team sent the student who runs the site a cease and desist on the grounds that reporting on her location endangered herself and those aboard (Saner, 2023; Collier and Li, 2024). The debate about the privacy and safety of mega-famous or polarizing businessmen, celebrities, and political figures is a common argument in favor of their private jet usage  (Collier and Li, 2024). That debate will not be settled in this article, but for more information on the highest private jet users of 2023, refer to this list


There is no question that the aviation industry has a major environmental impact. Holding the uber-wealthy accountable for their jet usage is an important step towards decreasing aviation-related emissions. But as many McGill students come from countries like Canada, the US, the UK, and France where it is normal to take several flights in a year, it is important that we consider our own impact and how to lessen it. A first step that everybody can take is to calculate their carbon footprint – this gives you an idea of how much your personal habits impact the environment as compared to an average person. Something else we can do is look into alternatives to flying, such as trains, buses, or car-pool road trips. Ultimately, this is a difficult issue to tackle. There is often no reasonable alternative to flying, so it cannot all come down to our personal attempts at decreasing air travel. There are technological and political steps that must be taken, such as increasing high-speed railways, making planes more energy efficient, and improving low-emission fuels. 


Already, some positive change is happening. In December, 2023, the Biden-Harris Administration announced the dedication of new funding toward building high-speed railways across the US (The United States Government, 2023). This step has the potential to dissuade commercial air travel in favor of taking a train. These kinds of innovations and investments must continue going forward if we hope to substantially decrease the emissions caused by the aviation sector. 


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References:

Collier, K., & Li, D. K. (2024, February 6). Taylor Swift sends cease and desist to UCF student tracking her private jets. NBCNews.com. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/taylor-swift-sends-cease-desist-student-tracking-private-jets-says-con-rcna137458 


Environmental Protection Agency. (2017, December 8). EPA takes first steps to address greenhouse gas emissions from aircraft. EPA. https://www.epa.gov/archive/epa/newsreleases/epa-takes-first-steps-address-greenhouse-gas-emissions-aircraft.html


Hasan, A., Mamun, A. A., Rahman, S. M., Malik, K., Al Amran, I., Khondaker, A. N., Reshi, O., Tiwari, S. P., & Alismail, F. S. (2021). Climate change mitigation pathways for the aviation sector. Sustainability, 13(7), 3656. https://doi.org/10.3390/su13073656


Irfan, U. (2019, July 25). Air travel is a huge contributor to climate change. A new global movement wants you to be ashamed to fly. Vox. https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2019/7/25/8881364/greta-thunberg-climate-change-flying-airline


Kim, H., & Teter, J. (n.d.). Aviation. IEA. https://www.iea.org/energy-system/transport/aviation


Saner, E. (2023, January 26). Flying shame: The scandalous rise of Private Jets. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2023/jan/26/flying-shame-the-scandalous-rise-of-private-jets 


Timperley, J. (2022, February 24). Should we give up flying for the sake of the climate?. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200218-climate-change-how-to-cut-your-carbon-emissions-when-flying 


The United States Government. (2023b, December 9). Fact sheet: President Biden announces billions to deliver world-class high-speed rail and launch new passenger rail corridors across the country. The White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/12/08/fact-sheet-president-biden-announces-billions-to-deliver-world-class-high-speed-rail-and-launch-new-passenger-rail-corridors-across-the-country/

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