Aeroplane emissions fell by almost a third last month as the coronavirus lockdown grounded flights around the world, a drop in emissions equivalent of taking about 6m cars off the road.
An FT analysis of more than 6m flights, using data from FlightRadar24, found that as much as 28m fewer tonnes of carbon dioxide were emitted in March as nearly 1m flights were cancelled globally. This is equivalent to a month of the UK’s total carbon dioxide emissions and constitutes a drop of 31 per cent from the comparable period last year.
Lauri Myllyvirta, lead analyst at the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air, a Finnish research group, pointed to previous shocks to commercial aviation, notably the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and the Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption a decade ago. “Neither of these events had as dramatic an impact on global aviation volumes on one-month or one-week basis as the ongoing Covid-19 crisis, making the current events unprecedented,” he said.
The number of scheduled flights in the last week of March was almost half that of the same period a year ago, according to OAG, a data consultancy, as governments around the world grounded air travel in an effort to contain the pandemic.
In the first week of April, air travel hubs such as the UK, Hong Kong and Switzerland experienced declines of more than 90 per cent in their flight numbers, OAG said. Globally, flight numbers are down 70 per cent so far this month, according to the International Air Transport Association.
Pollution from other forms of transport has also plummeted. Emissions from cars and motorcycles in Europe has fallen 88 per cent since the crisis began, according to an analysis from Sia Partners, a French consultancy.
As airlines have asked for financial support from governments to save them from bankruptcy, environmental campaigners are simultaneously lobbying for more taxation on aviation because of its environmental impact.
Airline campaigners have also stepped up calls over the past week that any bailouts should include a requirement to cut emissions and better labour conditions.
The US has earmarked $50bn in loans and guarantees to airlines, while countries including Norway, Italy, Australia and New Zealand have all provided support packages. Lufthansa, one of Europe’s biggest airlines, is in talks with the German government about its rapidly deteriorating finances, while France has signalled plans to help Franco-Dutch carrier Air France-KLM.
The emissions reductions were calculated using a standard formula for fuel consumption per aircraft whereby burning 1kg of jet fuel produces 3.15kg of carbon dioxide. For the first quarter of the year as a whole, the FT analysis showed that the total drop in emissions could be as high as 31.5m tonnes.
A separate analysis by Crea, the Finnish research group, estimated that about 7.9m tonnes of emissions were being avoided per week owing to a drop in the number of flights, based on data for the week ending April 6.
Overall, global carbon dioxide emissions from commercial flights in 2018 totalled 918m tonnes, or 2.4 per cent of carbon emissions from fossil fuel use, according to the International Council on Clean Transportation. The ICCT estimates that the figure has increased by 32 per cent over the past 5 years.
While airlines were coming under increasing environmental pressures before the coronavirus crisis, campaigners say it is hard to tell how long the drop in emissions might last.
“After every previous crash, growth resumed shortly afterwards. But this is a crisis unlike every other crisis,” said Andrew Murphy, aviation manager at Transport and Environment, a Brussels-based non-profit group.
If airlines are forced to use their own financial reserves before accessing bailouts, then it could take longer for flight levels to recover, he said. “It could lead to a drop in aviation capacity, which could lead to emissions being lower.”
Some aviation analysts are now predicting it could take up to three years for the industry to return to the traffic levels of 2019. Lufthansa has warned it will emerge a smaller airline after the crisis.