Flying in an airplane is likely the most greenhouse gas intensive activity you can do. In a few short hours, you can can travel thousands of miles across the continent or ocean. It takes a large amount of fossil-fuel energy (oil) to lift an 80+ ton airplane off the ground and propel it at 600 miles per hour through the air. Every hour of travel (in a Boeing 737) consumes around 750 gallons of jet fuel.
Even when dividing the fuel usage across all of the passengers (and cargo) of an aircraft, airplane travel consumes a significant amount of fuel per passenger. The fuel economy is estimated to be about the same as a fairly efficient hybrid car driven by one person (60-70 passenger miles per gallon). However, because you can go 10 times faster and much further more easily than you would in a car, airline travel can, on an absolute basis, emit larger amounts of greenhouse gases. In fact, an individual passenger’s share of emissions from a single airplane flight can exceed the annual average greenhouse gas emissions per capita from a number of countries (and the global average).
The following flight calculator and data visualization shows the miles and emissions produced per passenger by a airplane trip that you can specify. Choose two airports that you are interested in and click the “Calculate Flight Emissions” button to see the emissions associated with a round-trip flight between these two cities. The map will show you the flight route and also shows you the countries in the world where this one single round-trip flight produces more emissions per passenger than the average resident does in one year from all sources (annual per capita emissions).
In addition to individual countries, the tool also compares the flight’s per passenger emissions to the global average emissions per capita in 2017 (4.91 tonnes) and the emissions required to achieve a 22℃ climate stabilization in 2030 (3.08 tonnes) and in 2050 (1.37 tonnes). These 2030 and 2050 numbers are based on an International Energy Agency scenario.
The emissions calculated by this calculator are based on calculations from myclimate.org, a non-profit environmental organization.
The fuel consumption of a jet depends on the size of the aircraft and distance traveled, but takeoff and climbing to cruising altitude are particularly fuel-intensive. On shorter flights, the takeoff and initial climb will constitute a greater proportion of the total flight time so fuel consumption per mile will be higher than on longer (e.g. international) flights.
The detailed methodology is described in more detail in this document.
In addition to emissions of CO2 from the burning of jet fuel, jets also emit other gases (including methane, NOx, and water vapor) which can also contribute to warming (also known as “radiative forcing”). Because the emissions are occurring at high altitude, these gases can have different impacts than those at lower altitude. A number of studies have estimated the impact of these other gases can significantly contribute to the overall radiative forcing and have somewhere between 1.5 and 3 times the impact that the CO2 alone would. A number of studies, including the myclimate calculator use a factor of 2 to account for these non-CO2 gases and their warming impact, and that is what is used in this calculator as well.
Unlike cars, trucks and trains, it is much harder to power airplanes with batteries and electricity and producing low-carbon jet fuels from biomass is proving very challenging.
In order to achieve climate stabilization at 2 degrees C, global emissions need to basically go to zero over the next 40 years. With a growing global population, this means that the allowable emissions per person will shrink rapidly over these coming decades.
Ultimately, while aviation is a small part of global greenhouse gas emissions, it is a larger part of emissions in richer countries (i.e. if you are reading/viewing this post). And there are many in these richer countries who fly a disproportionate amount and therefore contribute a disproportionate amount of emissions. Hopefully, putting airplane travel in this context can help us better understand the impact of our actions and choices and maybe even change behavior for some.
Tools and Data Sources