Planes sold by Airbus in 2019 and 2020 will produce well over 1bn tonnes of carbon dioxide during their lifetimes, according to landmark first estimates of the aerospace manufacturer’s emissions.

Airbus sold a record 863 planes in 2019, which would translate to 740m tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent produced over a 22-year period, according to figures seen by the Guardian. It sold 566 planes last year, for which lifetime emissions would be 440m tonnes.

The figures highlight the scale of the challenge of decarbonisation for the plane-making duopoly of Airbus and its US rival Boeing. Aviation accounts for about 1.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions, and this share is expected to rise rapidly as more people in poorer nations are able to afford to fly.

The emissions intensity of Airbus products fell from 66.6g of CO2 equivalent per passenger kilometre in 2019 to 63.5g in 2020. Airbus, which has factories in France, the UK, US and China, said this reflected more efficient planes even as the pandemic caused sales to fall.

Julie Kitcher, a member of Airbus’s executive committee who oversees sustainability and communications, said: “Despite the crisis, we’re accelerating the roadmap to decarbonising aviation.”

She said the disclosures were a worst-case view of potential emissions because sustainable fuels could cut the planes’ true net emissions.

The independently audited disclosures mark the first time Airbus has published an estimate of the carbon emissions its commercial planes will generate. These are part of what are known as scope 3 emissions, as opposed to direct emissions from company machinery (scope 1) or emissions embedded in purchased energy (scope 2).

The scope 3 disclosures come as scrutiny of the company’s emissions by the public, governments and investors increases. They will put pressure on Boeing to reveal its emissions.

Emissions disclosure is seen as an important first step in the long journey towards a net zero economy, but Airbus said it had not yet set a science-based target for cutting its carbon emissions.

The aviation industry has a non-binding target to reach net zero between 2060 and 2065, long after the 2050 deadline that scientists say is required to limit global heating to only 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.

Airbus, Boeing, and engine manufacturers such as the UK’s Rolls-Royce are working on zero-emissions propulsion, as are a crowd of much smaller rivals. Some smaller electric planes are nearing production and Airbus is hoping to launch its first hydrogen-powered planes by 2035. Zero-emissions technology for long-haul flights is far off.

An artist’s impression of three Airbus ZEROe concept aircraft, which are hydrogen hybrids.
An artist’s impression of three Airbus ZEROe concept aircraft, which are hydrogen hybrids. Photograph: Airbus/PA

Airbus has reduced its emissions per passenger kilometre by half since 1990 through better aerodynamics, more efficient engines and lighter, stronger materials. However, further cuts in emissions will be more difficult to achieve.

Kitcher acknowledged that Airbus’s plans to cut emissions would depend heavily on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), synthesised kerosene produced from replenishable resources. SAF would still emit similar amounts of CO2 but would theoretically cause net-zero emissions over its lifecycle.

About half of Airbus’s plan for net zero emissions by 2050 depends on SAF, 42% from new technologies and the rest from more efficient management of planes. Similarly, Boeing has committed to certifying all of its planes for 100% SAF use by 2030, after carrying out test flights.

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Andrew Murphy, the aviation director at the campaign group Transport & Environment, welcomed the prospect of better aviation emissions disclosure. He said, however, that non-CO2 heating effects such as those caused by aircraft contrails should also be reported. Non-CO2 effects heat the planet more than carbon, according to EU analysis.

He also said SAF was potentially viable but it would take concerted action by governments and industry over the next decade to scale it sustainably to anywhere near the levels required. The slow action meant the aviation industry was likely to rely heavily on carbon offsetting for the next decade, he said.

“The sector is in kind of a bind,” he said. “The only thing the sector can do for the next 10 years is mitigate its growth.”



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