How much CO2 does a flight produce?

How much CO2 does a flight produce?

3rd January 2016 1 By Biggsy

Last Updated:

Reading Time: 4 minutes

So flying is bad for the environment. But just how much CO2 does a flight produce, say per person on a return flight from London to New York? While Googling this you’ll sometimes it can be difficult to get a straight answer. Some websites mention “total CO2 created”, but many talk “per mile”, while others talk about “per passenger mile”. Also be careful when you read an airlines efficiency claims. In 2019 Ryanair stated it “delivers the lowest CO2 per passenger/km in the EU airline industry“. This may be the case but when you look at Ryanair’s total emissions it’s Europe’s 10th worst emitter, after nine coal plants!!

How much CO2 does a plane produce?

A return flight from London to New York totals 1.69 metric tonnes of CO2e per passenger (carbon dioxide equivalent when CO2, methane methane (CH4) & Nitrous Oxide (N2O) are converted to carbon dioxide equivalents).

That’s the weight of 2 old style VW Beetles (800kg each). This equates to approximately 250g of CO2 per passenger mile.

Two VW beetles weigh as much as the CO2 produced per person flying from London to NYC and back!

Photo: Herbiemania.com

How much CO2 does that return flight produce in volume terms?

Well 1 metric tonne of carbon is 550m3 (a cube with 8.2m sides). So that return flight per person creates 930m3 – that’s a cube with 9.8m sides (bigger than a 3 bed house).

The CO2 produced would be bigger than this house!

The CO2 produced would be bigger than this house! Photo: Yahoo

… or 37% of an Olympic sized swimming pool (a 50m long, 2m deep pool is 2,500m3)

The area as represented by an Olympic sized swimming pool

The area as represented by an Olympic sized swimming pool. Photo: Visitlondon.com

… and using the UK’s Albert Hall as a visual comparison then 100 people on this flight are producing  93,000m3 of CO2 in total which is one Albert Hall or 169 tonnes (that’s the weight of 13 new Routemaster buses!!)

The Royal Albert Hall is always used in UK to make size comparisons easier to understand

The Royal Albert Hall is always used in UK to make size comparisons easier to understand. Photo: royalalberthall.com

How is this all worked out?

  1. The distances is calculated using the shortest route.
  2. This is then multiplied by 1.09 to allow for take-off, circling & non-direct routes.
  3. This is finally multiplied by the appropriate Defra emissions factor specific to the type of flight (UK domestic, short haul or long haul), the class of seat taken (economy class, business class etc.) and the average occupancy of the plane.
  4. Some sites then have a ‘Radiative Forcing Factor’ as emissions from planes at high altitudes impact climate change more than if the emissions were released at ground level. This then multiples any total figure by 1.9 (and what I have done for my calculations).

So what can be done to reduce your carbon footprint?

1. Combine your trip with another one?

Think it through – do you need to take this trip at all? Maybe you shouldn’t go travel blogging around the world for instance?
I hear tales of travel bloggers taking 42 flights in a year totalling 87,000 miles. Do you need to go on that many trips as that’s 21.75 tons of CO2. This equates to 27 old style VW Beetles or 4.8 Olympic sized swimming pools in volume!

Their counter argument is that travel blogging is their job. It’s no different to business people jetting around the globe while working. Fair point. Although business people aren’t encouraging lots of other people to increase their own carbon footprints too?

2. Offset your carbon?

So what about carbon offsetting? An article in the New York Times stated that company ‘Responsible Travel’ were cancelling their offsetting program. “While it might help travelers feel virtuous, it was not helping to reduce global emissions. In fact, company officials said it might even encourage some people to travel or consume more“.

Flight emissions in the UK are rising so fast that by 2020 they will account for the country’s entire sustainable carbon allocation. So people flying more is certainly not what we need! Maybe plant some trees? However a tree is carbon neutral so planting one will store the carbon temporarily only to emit it back into the atmosphere when it eventually dies. Most carbon offsetting schemes have already moved away from tree planting to cleaner energy projects such as supplying energy efficient cooking stoves to people in developing countries.

In summary – my thoughts on our carbon footprints

Only if that wasn’t going to happen anyway by some other means can you prove the additionality and worthiness of any offsetting project. More information on this in a great article by the Guardian – A complete guide to carbon offsetting. Better still a tonne of carbon saved today is far more valuable in terms of preventing climate change than a tonne of carbon saved in a few years’ time. So how much CO2 does a flight produce? Now we know. How about we all now just take fewer flights? Consider that saying you’ve travelled on 42 flights during the course of the year is actually a pretty “bad” thing and not something to be overly proud of? Have a go yourself at one of the many ‘Flight carbon footprint calculators‘.

Finally here’s a balanced and recent article (September 2019) from the automotive industry written by partcatalog.com.