The Environmental Pluses and Minuses of Global Aviation

G&A's Sustainability Highlights ( 01.15.2024 )
Feb 27, 2024 12:30 PM ET

We all fly here and there at some time, don’t we? Airline travel is a wondrous advancement in human progress that we often take for granted. It was just 120 years ago, on December 17, 1903, that the Wright Brothers of Dayton, Ohio mastered the air with a controlled, powered flight in what we now know as an “aircraft” on the Outer Banks of North Carolina.

Fast forward: in 2024, the Federal Aviation Administration estimates that each day there will be 45,000 flights scheduled with an estimated 2.9 million passengers moving across 29 million square miles of airspace in the U.S. At this rate, some 10 million people will fly point-to-point each year in the domestic skies and across oceans to their destinations!

With this amazing progress comes considerable environmental consequences. Writing in the Atmospheric Environment journal, a group of scholars in January 2021 posited that global aviation is helping to warm the Earth’s surface via complex processes such as emitting CO2, NOX, water vapor, soot and sulfate aerosols, and increased cloudiness resulting from contrails formation.

By some estimates, aviation operations overall contribute 2.5% of CO2 emissions and 3.5% of total impacts on climate when counting non-CO2 impacts. In 2018, global aviation had 1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions according to

Solutions to reduce those impacts remain quite hard to achieve – such as de-carbonizing when considering aircraft design and manufacture, flight operations procedures, and types of fuel used.

But there is some good news – aircraft manufacturers and airline operators in particular are trying to reduce emissions.

Writing in the authoritative industry publication Air Transport World, Linda Blachly points out that the global airline industry association, IATA, has set a collective “aspirational” goal of reducing CO2 emissions by 5% by 2030 by using sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). (Note that 100-plus nations are members of IATA.)

At Boeing, a major aircraft builder with 145,000 employees in 65 countries, a new Chief Sustainability Officer was named in December. He is Brian Moran, who has been with Boeing for over 20 years and was formerly VP-Global Sustainability Policy and Partnerships, managing projects such as the development of SAF. His new assigned mission: elevate Boeing’s focus to enable the company to achieve a more sustainable future.

Consider his company’s challenges: the aviation industry is aiming for net-zero in carbon emissions by 2050. Short-term, Boeing has a road map in place to reach a 55% absolute reduction in Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions and achieving 100% renewable energy use by 2030.

Meantime, short term Boeing is dealing with a serious crisis in the grounding of all 737-Max9 narrow body aircraft due to the Alaskan Airlines incident in January when a door flew off. Boeing’s CEO was quoted by CNN as being “devastated” and “emotional” by the news. Despite this bad news, Boeing had a banner year in 2023 with almost 1,500 aircraft orders added to its backlog. The current B-737 version is the fourth generation since production began in 1968.

As with other societal advances, in global aviation there are positive achievements to cheer and unwelcome consequences that are necessary to address. The climate change crisis presents myriad challenges for industry leaders and policy makers. The G&A team is available to help companies as they navigate these challenges and work to develop solutions.

This is just the introduction of G&A's Sustainability Highlights newsletter this week. Click here to view the full issue.