Freighter emissions up 25% since 2019

Photo: Scharfsinn/ Shutterstock

Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions generated by freighter aircraft have grown by 25% since 2019, according to environmental campaign group Stand.earth.

The report called for greater emissions transparency from carriers and said one of the major causes of the problem is the demand for faster delivery services for e-commerce shipments.

The report shows that airlines conducted around 30% more all-cargo flights in 2023 compared with 2019.

“Overall, dedicated freighters added over 750 more planes to their fleets and are currently operating from over 300 additional hubs as compared to 2019,” Stand.earth said.

“Together, the expansion of dedicated airfreight capacity alongside a nearly full recovery of belly freight cargo points to the emergence of a new climate and human health threat in the airfreight market.”

Airfreight operators have increased their GHG emissions by 25% compared to 2019, according to the report. In total, the industry generated 93.8m tons of CO2 emissions in 2023, it said.

“Compared to 2019, the 20 most polluting global cargo airports in 2023 generated an extra 12m metric tons of CO2,” it added.

Stand.earth said FedEx and UPS are the largest polluters in the industry, comprising a 24.7% share of the industry’s 2023 carbon emissions, or 23.2m metric tons of CO2.

Meanwhile, Amazon is one of the fastest growers and doubled CO2 emissions between 2019 and 2023.

Stand.earth said that the emergence of same- and next-day delivery as a standard in e-commerce is one important dynamic in the growth of emissions from airfreight.

Other e-commerce companies and retailers are competing to match Amazon’s delivery speed and consumers are factoring in delivery speed into their purchasing decisions.

As a first step, the group would like airlines to be more transparent about the impact of their operations to try and influence consumer behaviour.

“Industry leaders need to improve transparency about efforts to meet emissions targets, including important 2030 milestones,” Stand.earth said.

“A full accounting would include estimated traffic and carbon emissions growth projections alongside a timeline for the adoption of real solutions to emissions reductions.”

It added: “The Big Three (UPS, FedEx and Amazon) have a particular responsibility to shareholders and customers to improve the quality and scope of their emissions reporting.”

To help solve the issue, the report also calls for greater use of sea and rail transport.

Electrification of aircraft is another option, although the report said this is years off and companies have not shown sufficient investment in their development and adoption.

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is also an option, although the report highlights issues in the use of alternative fuels.

“This false solution gives the industry a longer runway to conduct business as usual while promising the technological solution to the problem it is creating is just around the corner.

“In truth, SAF has important caveats that make its role in emissions reduction unlikely if not impossible.”

Stand.earth said that the use of crops and biomass for SAF has low climate potential on a lifecycle basis compared with fossil fuels and can also result in the loss of food croplands and forests.

Non-food biomass – such as agricultural residue, waste cooking oil and switchgrass – is an improvement on crops and biomass in terms of climate potential but could result in increased deforestation.

Synthetic and e-fuels offer the highest potential to reduce emissions but are limited by technological immaturity and dependence on renewable hydrogen energy.

Stand.earth warned that failure to act could result in companies switching away from airfreight in favour of other modes of transport as they look to meet 2030 climate commitments. Lululemon and Apple were given as examples.

“2030 is an important deadline for global efforts to limit emissions. Many companies referenced in this report have made rhetorical commitments to reducing emissions over the second half of the decade, but their airfreight operations demonstrate little progress has been made,” the report said.

“Amazon Air, in particular, is going in the wrong direction with double-digit annual emissions growth. There is an opening in this sector for operators to compete on the basis of their alignment with climate targets.”

The European Commission (EC) recently wrote to 20 airlines to highlight several types of “potentially misleading green claims”.

Swiss WorldCargo turns to direct air capture to offset emissions

Airlines’ green claims come under European Commission scrutiny

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Damian Brett

Damian Brett
I have been writing about the freight and logistics industry since 2007 when I joined International Freighting Weekly to cover the shipping sector. After a stint in PR, I have gone on to work for Containerisation International and Lloyds List - where I was editor of container shipping - before joining Air Cargo News in 2015. Contact me on [email protected]