Airlines are off the hook for up to 200 million metric tons of carbon emissions

2020 was supposed to be a pivotal year for the airline industry’s carbon footprint. Instead, the industry is getting let off the hook for up to 200 million metric tons of CO2 emissions.

Let’s back up: Aviation is notoriously tricky to decarbonize. New commercial planes are getting more efficient, but not enough to offset growth in passengers (pre-pandemic, anyway), and they’re still a long way from running on batteries or anything other than jet fuel. Although air travel’s footprint is relatively small—around 2.4% of total global emissions—it’s growing quickly, up 10% between 2013 and 2019.

In 2016, the United Nations agency that regulates international air travel, with the support of industry trade groups, adopted a plan to curb emissions. Starting in 2021, companies would be required to purchase carbon offsets for any emissions from international flights that exceed a baseline of their 2019-2020 average (domestic flights, which account for 35% of total aviation emissions, aren’t included in the plan).

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