Flight Emissions Are a Big, Hairy Problem

If you traveled in 2019, then you were aboard one of 40 million flights that had departed worldwide—more than 100,000 trips per day (ICAO). That number could explode in the coming years.

Gavin Platt
6 min readJun 17, 2020


A solo airplane flying against a backdrop of the sky

The effects of CO2 emissions from air travel create quite a conundrum for would-be environmentalists. This became apparent when I set out to trace my transportation and residential energy carbon footprint over the last 12 years.

While I had developed spreadsheets for accurately estimating per passenger transit emissions, along with meticulous record-keeping of my vehicle trips and home energy use, I was thunderstruck by the extent to which flight emissions consumed my overall carbon budget.

A personal assessment

From 2008–2019, I had averaged 3.5 economy class round-trip flights, domestic and international, for work and leisure. Here’s how CO2 emissions from air travel compared to CO2 emissions from everything else:

A graph of my carbon dioxide emissions related to transportation and residential energy use

First, here are three important caveats you need to know:

  • Flight emissions matter if you fly. Many Americans don’t fly at all. Just 12% of Americans take two-thirds of all passenger flights (ICCT, 2018). Even if you don’t fly, flight emissions may matter insofar as your purchasing decisions rely on air freight shipment, which is considerably worse than transporting the same volume of cargo by sea or land.
  • These figures include only the CO2 generated by burning fuel—not any of the externalized emissions associated with planes, airports, and ground operations. There can even be wide variation between per passenger emissions for different airlines. The same goes for everything else: vehicle emissions don’t include emissions from highway construction or battery production, nor do natural gas emissions include emissions from fracking operations or pipeline construction.
  • Everyone’s transportation mix is different. So is your fuel mix. For instance, I don’t drive all that much, and I…



Gavin Platt

Multidisciplinary product and design leader. Aspiring comic.

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