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Chinese Aviation Could Quadruple Emissions by 2050

An Air China 777 sits on the ramp at Houston Intercontinental Airport (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Mateen Kontoravdis)

As time passes to prevent the earth’s average temperature from rising to potentially-catastrophic levels permanently, airlines are under increasing pressure to reduce their emissions. Airlines have had varying responses to this. JetBlue will go carbon neutral this year, following easyJet’s precedent. Other major airlines have revealed plans to reduce their emissions by a set date.

Chinese airlines may be on the wrong path in the coming years. CarbonBrief reports that China’s aviation market could quadruple its emissions by 2050.

China’s aviation industry has grown from virtually nonexistent in the 20th century to being the world’s second-largest by 2005. In 2019, Chinese flights emitted 95 million tonnes of CO2, accounting for 13 percent of global aviation emissions. The only sector to emit more carbon was the U.S., which is also the only aviation market larger than China’s. China could easily surpass the US in emissions in the 2020s, as its market is projected to become the world’s largest in 2029.

“China’s growth is likely to be higher than the global average. The air transport markets in Europe and North America are relatively mature and are forecast to grow at around 4 percent per annum,” said Tim Johnson, a representative of the Aviation Environment Federation.

“China…has been averaging 13% per annum growth for the last couple of decades and future projections for the Asia-Pacific market show that 7-8% per annum is likely.”

“The rapid increase in [China’s] air transport is expected to continue, which poses critical challenges to this industry in terms of reducing carbon emissions,” said Jinglei Yu, the lead author of a study published in the Energy Policy journal.

Jinglei’s study created a model to forecast China’s long-term emissions considering the growth rate of distances being traveled and fuel consumption, including the rise of biofuels. The model assumes that aviation demand in China will continue rising. Disregarding biofuels and assuming that demand rises and distance traveled and fuel efficiency remains constant, the study calculated that emissions will rise to 456 million tonnes of CO2, about 3.5 times higher than 2020’s projected emissions. In a scenario where average distance traveled continues rising, emissions quadruple to 516 million tonnes of CO2 by 2050.

The study also considered scenarios in which biofuel replacement reaches up to 50 percent. In a scenario where biofuel replacement is 25 percent, emissions will only reach 310 million tonnes of CO2 per year; with 50 percent biofuel substitution, this figure falls even lower to 208 million tonnes of CO2.

China’s aviation emissions are, per capita, relatively low. Airlines only emitted 0.09 tonnes of CO2 per capita compared with 0.57 tonnes per capita in the U.S. and 0.86 in the U.K. That does not mean that they are exempt from keeping their emissions in check, for their population, the world’s largest, keeps their per-capita emissions deceptively low.

China has the potential to create one of the most efficient aviation markets of a country. The country’s per capita wealth has been steadily growing, making more wealth available to invest in environmentally friendly resources and programs.

As China strives to become a global social and economic leader, it is in their best interest to create precedents that will lead the world toward increased efficiency and even carbon neutrality. The country already has below-average per-capita emissions, and investing in effective environmental policy will help them remain global environmental leaders.

John McDermott


  • John McDermott

    John McDermott is a student at Northwestern University. He is also a student pilot with hopes of flying for the airlines. A self-proclaimed "avgeek," John will rave about aviation at length to whoever will listen, and he is keen to call out any airplane he sees, whether or not anyone around him cares about flying at all. John previously worked as a Journalist and Editor-In-Chief at Aeronautics Online Aviation News and Media. In his spare time, John enjoys running, photography, and watching planes approach Chicago O'Hare from over Lake Michigan.

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