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Friday, October 8, 2021

Australian Aviation CO2 emissions equivalent to 5 coal power stations

A new website uncovers the aviation emissions associated with 1300 airports globally, covering 99 per cent of passenger flights. Twenty four of those airports are located in Australia producing carbon emissions equivalent to five coal fired power stations.

The aviation sector would have been the sixth-largest emitter of CO₂ in 2018 if it were a country, responsible for 2.5 per cent of global emissions. Up until the pandemic aviation was growing 5 per cent annually since 2013. Despite the disruption caused by the pandemic, the sector remains off-track for limiting global heating to 1.5ºC.

Aviation emissions for the website is based on data from 1300 airports from 2013, 2018, 2019. The website was a joint project by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), International Think Tank ODI, and Transport and Environment (T&E).

This is the first global attempt to focus on the infrastructure that enables and induces air travel and leads to more CO₂ emissions in future decades.

According to key findings in the policy brief

  • Airport Tracker data reveals that just 20 airports were responsible for 27 per cent of CO₂ emissions from air passenger transport, 44 airports each created more CO₂ over the course of a year than a coal-fired power station, and nearly two-thirds of air passenger CO₂ emissions were created by just 100 of the 1,300 airports.
  • The Airport Tracker visualises aviation’s deep socioeconomic inequalities: the above airports are overwhelmingly located in the Asia-Pacific, North America and Europe, while passenger flights from just 20 cities created CO₂ emissions equivalent to a mid-sized economy, such as Spain.
  • Inequality also exists within regions. Of the 346 European airports analysed, just 10 account for 42 per cent of the region’s passenger CO₂ emissions, and 4 of these 10 are in just two countries (the UK and Germany).

Australian aviation emissions: (2018, 2019 data, prepandemic)

The data profile for Australia shows that emissions  are equivalent to the yearly emissions from 5 coal-fired power plants.

  • Total flight emissions of passengers: 19.10 million tonnes CO2
  • Total distance flown by fare-paying passengers: 214.00 billion kms
  • Carbon emissions per passenger, per kilometer: 89 grams CO2 per passenger km

The Airport Tracker lists the top 24 airports in Australia assessing emissions for short haul, medium haul and long haul. 

So Sydney airport aviation emissions is the equivalent of 2 coal fired power stations with Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport. Sydney also features 8th in the top ten most polluting airports in the Asia-Pacific, North America and Europe witharound  7 MtCO2 of pollution.

Melbourne Airport is the equivalent of one coal fired power station with Melbourne Tullamarine airport. But note Melbourne's Avalon Airport comes in at 10th on the emissions list. 

Queensland is the only state with 3 airports in the top 10: Brisbane, Cairns and Gold Coast.

Canberra has the highest carbon intensity for flights of 116 grams of carbon emissions per passenger kilometre. This reflects the large number of short haul flights to and from Canberra. Short haul flights have a higher carbon intensity than medium and long haul flights.

Australian Airports Top 11 Ranking in emissions:

  1. Sydney - Flight emissions: 6.99 million tonnes CO2; Distance: 76.30 billion kms; Carbon emissions/passenger km: 92 grams.
  2. Melbourne - Flight emissions: 4.65 million tonnes CO2; Distance: 53.50 billion kms; Carbon emissions/passenger km: 87 grams.
  3. Brisbane - Flight emissions: 2.64 million tonnes CO2; Distance: 30.60 billion kms; Carbon emissions/passenger km: 86 grams.
  4. Perth - Flight emissions: 1.95 million tonnes CO2; Distance:  22.00 billion kms; Carbon emissions/passenger km: 89 grams.
  5. Adelaide - Flight emissions: 0.72 million tonnes CO2; Distance: 8.02 billion kms; Carbon emissions/passenger km: 90 grams.
  6. Cairns - Flight emissions: 0.45 million tonnes CO2; Distance: 5.42 billion kms; Carbon emissions/passenger km: 83 grams.
  7. Gold Coast - Flight emissions: 0.40 million tonnes CO2; Distance: 4.94 billion kms; Carbon emissions/passenger km: 80 grams.
  8. Darwin - Flight emissions: 0.22 million tonnes CO2; Distance: 2.74 billion kms; Carbon emissions/passenger km: 79 grams. 
  9. Canberra - Flight emissions: 0.19 million tonnes CO2; Distance: 1.62 billion kms; Carbon emissions/passenger km: 116 grams. 
  10. Avalon (Melbourne) - Flight emissions: 0.14 million tonnes CO2; Distance: 1.75 billion kms; Carbon emissions/passenger km: 78 grams
  11. Hobart -  Flight emissions: 0.12 million tonnes CO2; Distance: 1.25 billion kms; Carbon emissions/passenger km: 98 grams

Note the aviation tracker only calculates CO2 emissions and ignores non-CO2 emissions and high altitude flying climate impacts

Greenhouse gas accounting:

Domestic aviation emissions are included in Australia's Greenhouse Gas inventory and Australia is responsible for reducing these emissions.

International aviation emissions are excluded from Australian carbon accounting, and are considered part of carbon accounting by International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). Australia sends diplomatic representatives to ICAO meetings, but there is very little public transparency in their advocacy.

Airports themselves are not held responsible for aviation emissions, only for emissions of the airport infrastructure itself. So an Airport can include a solar farm and adopt strong sustainability criteria and on paper may seem to have a low emissions profile. But this ignores the aviation emissions that the airport infrastructure induces. So airport expansion induces greater aviation emissions, but this emissions growth is never formally accounted against the expanded airport infrastructure. 

Airport operations are regulated by the Federal Government.

So to this point it is mainly information I am conveying. But unless some sectors of the economy can go carbon negative there is little room for aviation as we know it in a zero carbon world.

How the aviation sector will recover from the pandemic is unclear, yet to limit global heating to 1.5ºC, total net GHG emissions must halve by 2030 and fall to zero by 2050 (IPCC, 2018; IPCC 2021)

The International Airline Industry in a press release on 13 May 2020 forecasted that due to the pandemic domestic travel may not recover till 2023 and international long haul aviation 2025. (See the blog post: Aviation growth disrupted, time for a moratorium on airport expansion, reassesment of aviation climate impact)

Current reporting standards are preoccupied with the climate impact of airport terminals and ground operations, ignoring the much larger emissions that arise from the flights that airports generate.

The details in the airport tracker enable better advocacy to

  1. challenging airport expansion;
  2. contesting airports’ self-reported GHG emissions;
  3. exploring aviation inequality between different geographies;
  4. linking airports to local and national climate plans; and
  5. opportunities for replacing short-haul flights with other travel options. 

Aviation Emissions need to be tackled

Aviation is a niche part of transport decarbonisation, but it is a very high intensity carbon activity. So what can be done?

See also this blog post from 2018: Guest Post: Why our carbon emission policies don't work on air travel

  • Start with Flying less. 
  • Stop airport expansion that will induce growth in aviation emissions
  • Phase in the cost of carbon in airline ticket prices 
  • Investigate demand management schemes for flying to place caps on flying. 
  • Perhaps a personal carbon budget scheme for flying. 
  • Disincentives for Frequent Flyers

Start with ways that involve equity so the person or family that just makes a trip for a holiday or to visit family every 1-2 years are not greatly impacted while Frequent Flyers bear a much larger burden.

Aviation Emissions profiles for Australia's top ten airports


The report says airport emissions are conservative estimates and do not include freight or non-CO2 impacts and other related ground transport emissions. "This version of the Airport Tracker underestimates the total CO₂ created by individual airports because we only focus on commercial, passenger-related emissions. The totals presented do not include emissions associated with freight (either dedicated flights or carried in the belly of passenger flights), military or general aviation. Emissions associated with freight equate to approximately 15% of total emissions from commercial aviation. Emissions from military and general aviation are considered marginal compared to those from commercial flights. Our data also does not include the non-CO₂ warming effects of aviation fuel, emissions related to airport ground operations or terminal buildings, or emissions created by passengers before or after their flights (e.g. travelling to/from the airport). "


Pickard, S. and Gençsü, I. (2021) ‘The Airport Tracker: uncovering aviation emissions’. ODI policy brief. London: ODI (

Airport Tracker: Aviation emissions uncovered : 

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