Grounded! COVID-19 and the frequent flyer

Tracking progress
Emissions modeling

COVID-19 has had a disastrous impact on public health, infecting an estimated 87 million people and killing almost 1.9 million as of the time of this writing. It’s also dealt a body blow to commercial aviation, which has been both a key vector for and victim of the virus. Airlines now expect that traffic won’t return to 2019 levels until 2024.

COVID-19 also fundamentally changed how those of us who rely upon international travel do our jobs. As I’ve written about before, being a technical observer to environmental working groups at both the International Maritime Organization and International Civil Aviation Organization demands a significant amount of international travel. That, in turn, generates significant greenhouse gas emissions; in a typical year, 70% or more of my personal carbon dioxide (CO2) inventory is linked to flying. The irony, that I fly to help develop policies to reduce aviation emissions, isn’t lost on me.

At the end of the past several calendar years, I’ve compiled my personal energy CO2 footprint. This covers my household energy use, train commute, plus personal and work-related flying. Due to COVID travel restrictions, the rise of virtual rather than physical UN meetings, and working from home since mid-March, 2020 clearly showed how staying closer to home reduces my environmental footprint. My calculation methods are the same as in previous years, although for this year I used emission factors by aircraft type drawn for our latest and greatest global inventory.

The results are shown below. Clearly, COVID-19 had a large and direct impact on CO2 emissions from direct energy use. Compared to 2019, my CO2 from flying fell by two-thirds, and my emissions from rail fell by over 80%, as my workspace constricted to one corner of my living room. My total emissions fell as well, down to 4.4 tonnes CO2 counting work flights and less than half that without. That’s down almost 60% from 2019 levels, which itself was 18% lower than 2018 levels due to strategies I took to reduce and optimize my travel. Still, the work and personal trip I took this year (more on that below) accounted for about 65% of my direct CO2 emissions from energy.


Flying’s outsized role as a source of my emissions is even clearer when shown over time, per the figure below for personal emissions only (blue) plus work travel (red). Throughout most of the year, my personal energy use due to heating, lighting, and the occasional car trip was fairly consistent, but punctuated by a jump in emissions due to air travel. In February, I took two international work trips, the first to an ICAO meeting Montreal with a stopover at our Washington DC office, and the second to Paris for several OECD meetings and a related event. As a result, 2.4 tonnes, or more than half of my annual CO2, occurred in that single month before California’s lockdown began in March. You can see another spurt of emissions associated with the three legs of a personal trip I took to the Midwest to move an elderly relative closer to family in October. It doesn’t take a genius to see how strongly flying drives my GHG footprint, especially pre-COVID.


These results are a bit extreme, but not overly so. Because I share a small home with my wife and daughter, in moderate Northern California with decent public transportation and a clean electric grid, my personal energy use is pretty low. Likewise, the majority of my flights are energy intensive long-haul flights. Still, many middle-class professionals are frequent flyers that drive up to half of global aviation emissions. For them, aviation can easily account for 20% or more of their total emissions, and even more if they fly carbon-intensive business class.

It will be interesting to see how business trips, and the associated emissions evolve as the COVID pandemic relaxes (someday). By one estimate, up to 36% of business travel may never come back, instead being replaced by tools adopted in the wake of COVID-19 such as videoconferencing. Other factors may also constrain emissions growth, which until recently were expected to triple by mid-century. Even before COVID struck, airlines were reeling from the flygskam (“flying shame”) movement in Europe which, according to UBS, has the potential to halve the growth of air travel if people reduced their flying.

My crystal ball broke last March, and it’s pretty unclear where we go from here. For me, I expect to remain grounded for most of 2021 given COVID’s third wave and the slow vaccine rollout. One day, I hope to fly emissions free. Until then, fewer work trips and more virtual meetings can help me and other frequent flyers reduce emissions. So, two cheers for the occasional grounding; let’s just hope it will soon be voluntary.