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Last updated: 04 August 2022

Cancelled Flights in the UK: Insights on CO2 Emissions

You might have already suffered from it or, at the bare least, read or watched it in the news: flight cancellations, airport delays, and cancelled holiday getaways are expected to continue throughout the entire summer season this year.

As reported by the BBC, airlines are cutting tens of thousands of short-haul flights from their April-to-October schedule. The situation is worse in London, where most major British airports are located. From an environmentalist point of view, this makes one wonder about the volume of CO2 emissions saved because of the cancellations. Short answer: quite a lot.

Let’s put it clearly here to avoid any misunderstanding. We don't mean, or even suggest, that more flights should be cancelled to reduce CO2 and greenhouse gases emissions. This must be achieved more organically, as a people’s initiative to adopt better and greener travel practices –including reducing the number of flights they take.

Green travel practices

Flights in London, CO2 Emissions, Cancellations, and a Bit of Perspective

It may be helpful to look at how many flights arrive and depart from London every day to have a better idea of how much CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions they produce.

According to EUROCONTROL, a pan-European organisation supporting European aviation, 5,735 flights arrived or departed from the United Kingdom on the 1st of August, 2022. Of those, about 3,000 corresponded to London’s main airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, and City). London Heathrow, Gatwick and City airports —the three most affected by flight cancellations— accounted for 68% of London’s total.

Estimating how much CO2 London’s flights emit is difficult, as it depends on several factors (e.g. travel distances, size and type of planes, weight). However, it is possible to look at specific routes and put this data into perspective.

An analysis by The Guardian in 2019 showed that even short-haul flights produce huge amounts of CO2, as much as many people in dozens of countries produce in a year. Whilst already three years old, The Guardian’s interactive flights CO2 calculator is still very handy.

For instance, a London-Rome round trip emits 234kg CO2 per passenger, more than the CO2 emissions the average person in 17 countries around the world produces in 1 year. At 118kg CO2 per passenger, even a single domestic return flight London-Edinburgh contributes to more CO2 emissions than the average individual in 10 countries.

In July 2022, British Airways announced that it would cut 10,300 more short-haul flights from its August-October schedule. Suppose all these flights are approximately as short as the London-Edinburg example above. In that case, the avoided CO2 emissions per passenger would be around 607.7 tonnes. 

This figure is comparable to 256 return flights London-Jakarta, or to the amount of CO2 that the average person in 97 countries would produce in 256 years. Another fun fact: 97 countries represent 50,25% of United Nations membership.

Greener alternatives

As we stated above, we don’t want, by any means, you and your family to miss your well-deserved, long-planned summer trip. However, we do invite you to think about the figures we brought in in the wake of the current flight cancellation situation, as well as how you can help achieve greener, sustainable travel practices as standard. 

According to Milena Buchs, Associate Professor in Sustainability, Economics and Low Carbon Transitions at the University of Leeds, travelling by train is likely to be far more climate-friendly than flying. “Generally, trains and coaches are the lowest carbon means of travel”, she says, as quoted by BBC Future in 2020.

CO2 equivalent emissions for each km a passenger travels by mean of transportation

CO2 equivalent emissions by mean of transportation

Credit: BEIS/Defra/BBC

If you are to/must travel by plane, then you can follow Dan Rutherford’s suggestions on how to fly like a NERD (New, Economy, Regular, Direct). Rutherford directs aviation and marine programs at the International Council on Clean Transportation, an independent nonprofit organisation based in the US. His advice is intended as a way of cutting emissions per flight.

  • New. As long as possible, choose to fly with an airline that uses the newest aircraft possible, as newer models burn less fuel than older ones.
  • Economy. Booking an economy ticket rather than business or first class is better for the environment. More seats, and fewer unfilled seats, means lower fuel burn per passenger.​

Level of CO2 equivalent produced by each km a passenger travels by cabin class

CO2 equivalent produced by cabin class

Credit: BEIS/Defra/BBC

  • Regular. As long as you can, avoid flying on either very small or very large planes, as regular, medium-sized jets tend to be more fuel efficient.
  • Direct. Fly direct, without layovers, where possible, to reduce fuel burn due to circuitous routes.

Whilst not substitutive to the development of sustainable aviation practices —e.g. improving and using Sustainable Aviation Fuels— the tips above can work as a short term-palliative. The choice is always yours. If you read this article so far, we are glad that you’ve probably already started thinking about how to make your next trip as green as possible.

Luis Antonio Gómez Pérez
Written by Luis Antonio Gómez Pérez, Copywriter

Luis Antonio is a copywriter at GreenMatch. Throughout his career as a writer, he has focused on sustainability, environment, science, culture, local and national identities, international politics, and the links between these fields. With a background in journalism, he has researched and written several features about international cooperation initiatives on renewable energy, as well as on environmental policies and strategies at local, national and international levels.