Surge in Air Freight Emissions: A New Environmental Challenge

Air freight operators have experienced a 25% rise in greenhouse gas emissions since 2019, driven by a nearly 30% increase in flight volume, with about 300,000 more flights in 2023 than in 2019. This sharp increase has been highlighted in a recent analysis by campaign group Stand.earth, which underscores the significant environmental impact of the air freight industry.

The report reveals that the United States alone accounted for over 40% of global air freight emissions. Dr. Devyani Singh, one of the study’s authors, has characterized the rapid expansion as “a new climate and human health threat.” Dr. Singh calls on air freight companies to reduce their reliance on air cargo and shift towards lower-carbon transportation methods such as marine shipping or rail.

Air freight is known for its high carbon footprint, producing approximately 80 times more carbon emissions than sea or truck shipping. The researchers attribute the increase in air freight emissions to changes in the post-pandemic economy and evolving consumer expectations in e-commerce, where fast shipping has become a standard, particularly fueled by Amazon’s Prime membership, which boasts over 200 million users globally.

Before the pandemic, air freight was primarily used for perishable goods, time-sensitive deliveries, and luxury items. However, pandemic-related supply chain disruptions have led to a rise in air freight for non-perishable and lower-value goods. The report notes a dual cause for increased emissions: the rise of cargo-only flights during the pandemic and the return of belly cargo emissions to nearly pre-pandemic levels.

In 2023, total air freight emissions reached 93.8 million tonnes, marking a 25% increase from 2019. FedEx and UPS alone contributed to 24.7% of the industry’s carbon emissions. Despite the urgent need for low-carbon aviation fuel, 99.8% of aviation fuel currently comes from fossil fuels, and scalable low-carbon alternatives remain a distant prospect.

The global annual parcel volume is projected to rise dramatically, potentially reaching 800 billion parcels by 2030, up from 315 billion in 2022. The sector continues to grow robustly, with Amazon reporting a 13% increase in revenues from Q1 2023 to Q1 2024.

The findings highlight the pressing need for the air freight industry to address its environmental impact and explore sustainable alternatives to curb its carbon footprint.