Discovering the true extent of global aviation emissions

A Norwegian study analyzed 40 million flights in 2019, revealing that global aviation emissions are 50% higher than what was reported by the United Nations: China, absent from the UN data, is among the biggest polluters

It might sound alarming to learn that global air traffic pollution is far greater than we previously thought. What if we told you that a Norwegian study revealed surprising data, showing that actual emissions exceed official figures by 50%? What does this mean for our future?

A flawed system unveiled

Since the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) treaty in 1992, high-income countries have been required to report their emissions from both national and international flights. However, 155 middle-to-low income countries, including China and India, were exempt from this reporting obligation, with the option to provide data voluntarily. A study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, published in Environmental Research Letters, analyzed approximately 40 million flights from 2019, calculating the greenhouse gas emissions produced by air travel from 197 countries.

Thanks to the Norwegian model AviTeam, data was also collected on the 45 countries excluded from the UN treaty due to their less developed economies. The findings of the study are quite alarming. Global aviation emissions amount to 1.005 billion tons, 50% more than the 670 million tons reported by the United Nations for the same period. This Norwegian dossier has thus revealed the “dark side” of air emissions, proving that the data released by the UNFCCC does not reflect the real impact of global air traffic.

United States and China at the top of emissions

The study showed that the United States has the highest number of emissions from national and international flights, followed by China and the United Kingdom. France ranks seventh, Spain ninth, and Italy is in 17th place. A significant finding is the position of China, absent in the United Nations report, but ranked second in the Norwegian study for aviation pollution emissions. Helene Muri, a researcher at the Industrial Ecology Program at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, stated:

“We now have a much clearer picture of aviation emissions by country, including previously unreported emissions.”

Another significant aspect of the study concerns the link between economic well-being per capita and emissions. Norway, with its 5.5 million inhabitants, ranks third in per capita emissions, after the United States and Australia, showing that those with greater economic resources tend to travel more by air. Jan Klenner, the lead author of the study, emphasizes the importance of filling the gaps in emission reporting, hoping the results can influence future policies and negotiations. Anders H Strømman, co-author of the study, commented:

“In the past, we relied on statistical offices and reporting cycles that could take a year or more to gather this information. Now we can model emissions instantaneously, calculating them as they happen.”

Indeed, the real innovation of the dossier lies in the use of big data, which allows for detailed and almost real-time information on emissions related to climate changes.

Source: Environmental Research Letters

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