Aviation carbon pollution

Clearer skies, or clouds on the horizon?

Airplanes on runway

Tens of thousands of new aircraft are expected to take to the skies in the coming years, and unless bold steps are taken, that will mean dramatic increases in aviation carbon pollution.

Projections from 2010-2040

  • 56,000 new passenger aircraft needed to meet projected increase in demand for international air travel.1
  • 3 to 4 times estimated increase in CO2 emissions from international aviation, after factoring in technological and operational efficiency improvements.2

Airlines—under threat of patchwork carbon regulation around the world, and amid widespread public resentment over cramped seats and cringe-worthy fees—have come to the table in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

We’re at that table too. Our goal is a tough cap on the carbon emissions from flights world-wide, and a transparent global market-based measure to grind down the costs of meeting that cap.

Focus areas

We’re bringing our practical, “finding the ways that work” strategy to three focus areas—a global market-based measure, technology/operations, and biofuels. Here’s what we’re up to.

A global market-based measure (MBM)

The real victory in any effort to cut global warming pollution is a cap on the total amount of that pollution, and a clear path for future, steeper cuts. This is the key if the world is to turn the corner on climate change.

Our goal is to help the nations of the world and the aviation industry agree on a policy tool—a well-designed global market-based measure—that uses the power of markets to help airlines turn away from the path of rising climate pollution.

To reach this goal, we’re working with other civil society partners through the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation, governments, and the international aviation industry, which in 2009 put forward a unique proposal that provided the basis for the current talks in ICAO. With the proposal, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) will accept a cap on its total carbon pollution starting in 2020 and cut its emissions 50% by 2050, if ICAO crafts a MBM to allow airlines to meet the cap cost-effectively.

While ICAO has talked about MBMs for years, now ICAO has a deadline: Get the MBM done by September 2016. We’re working with ICAO and other stakeholders to ensure that ICAO meets that deadline.

For more information on ICAO’s history with a global market-based measure, see all our resources on market-based measures »

Technological and operational efficiency improvements

While the efficiency of aircraft—like that of cars—improved greatly in past decades, that trend has generally stalled since 2012 in the United States.3 EDF supports strong aviation CO2 standards in the U.S. and through ICAO.

See all our resources on technological and operations efficiency improvements »


Airlines are promoting biofuels as the future of carbon-neutral growth in ICAO. Some biofuels do show promise, but without strict standards, aviation’s thirst could destroy forests to make way for jet-fuel plantations. That would make global warming worse and hurt the people whose lives depend on the forests.

EDF is fighting for proper carbon accounting of biofuel-related emissions, and incentives to make trees worth more alive than dead.

See all our resources on biofuels »

  1. ICAO Secretariat, “Air Traffic and Fleet Forecasts.” 28-21
  2. Fleming and Ziegler, “Environmental Trends in Aviation to 2050.” 24-25.
  3. Kwan and Rutherford, U.S. Domestic Airline Fuel Efficiency Ranking, 2013. 9