Airports in U.S., Europe and China Produce the Most Flight Carbon Emissions

Airports in the United States, China, and the European Union are major drivers of commercial flight carbon emissions, according to a 2020 report by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT). Researchers with the organization found that in the years preceding the pandemic, these three entities produced more than half the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions related to passenger operations in 2019.

As world leaders gather at a climate summit in Glasgow this week, air travel emissions are just one way regulators and industry may curb global warming.

[READ: Europe Outpaces U.S., China in Clean Energy Innovation]

The United States had the highest emissions related to passenger air travel by far in 2019, with more than 175 million metric tons of CO2 emissions. China producedh more than 90 million metric tons, but it’s expected to become the largest aviation market in the world by 2050, surpassing the U.S. and Europe, according to Brandon Graver, a senior aviation researcher at ICCT and one of the authors of the 2020 report. The data included in this story includes more than 1,300 airports covering 99% of commercial passenger travel.

Late last year, the EPA implemented its first aircraft emissions rules, and in the EU, the air travel industry participates in its carbon trade program. Earlier this year, both the Airports Council International and the International Air Transport Association both announced commitments to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

These goals often change, however, and with different regulators for international and domestic air travel, there’s little accountability to ensure industries meet those emission reduction goals, Graver says.

“It’s one thing to make a goal, it’s another thing to make progress and make sure that you are transparent with civil society about the progress you’re making,” he says. “Everyone makes goals and promises and then they shift.”

ICCT’s analysis excluded commercial air travel emissions related to freight, which account for about 15% — the remaining 85% of commercial operations emissions come from passenger transport, according to the report.

In 2019, the 10 highest emitting airports produced an amount of carbon emissions equivalent to nearly 32 coal-fired power plants, or more than 63 million passenger vehicles. These are mostly hubs, responsible for so many emissions because of the number of flights moving through them, according to Graver.

These busier airports aren’t necessarily the least green, however. Different aircrafts, the length of flights and other factors mean that many smaller airports produce more carbon emissions for for each passenger per kilometer traveled.

While some airports may boast their carbon reduction efforts or describe themselves as carbon neutral, Graver says, those claims often don’t account for actual passenger transport. Rather, they may rely on the limited activities within the airport, such as energy usage within the terminal or aircrafts taxiing on the runway.

Despite improvements in technology to improve fuel efficiency, increased demand for air travel has kept those reduced emissions from making much of a difference. Still, he believes that if industries, consumers and regulators all come to the table, meeting emissions reduction goals is possible.

“I’m young … I remain optimistic that working together, we can actually achieve this,” he says of goals to reduce air travel carbon emissions. “Hopefully my kids will be able to fly and see the world like I have and not worry about the climate impact of it.”

More from U.S. News

How Climate Change May Increase Global Conflicts

Countries Seen as Providing Most Sustainable Living

The 25 Best Countries in the World

Airports in U.S., Europe and China Produce the Most Flight Carbon Emissions originally appeared on

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up