5 minute read
Ever wondered about the environmental impact of baggage in travel?
Traveling has become an integral part of modern life, connecting people and cultures across the globe. However, with the increasing awareness of environmental sustainability, it is crucial to examine the ecological footprint of various aspects of travel. In this white paper, we explore the environmental impact of aviation baggage, which is often overlooked.
Our research delves into the energy consumption of airport handling systems, the carbon footprint of baggage in flight scenarios, and the environmental consequences of mishandled bags. By analysing these factors and comparing them with tangible figures, we aim to create awareness about the significant impact of travel baggage on our planet.
Airport handling system energy consumption
Through our research, we've uncovered a fascinating insight: on average, every bag passing through the airport's baggage handling system consumes approximately 0.5 kWh of energy. This discovery is based on data from CASCADE (2011). To help contextualise this energy consumption, imagine it takes two hours for a smartphone to charge using a 5 Watt charger, which equates to 0.01 kWh. Remarkably, the energy used in processing a single bag can charge a smartphone an astonishing 50 times.
Flight emissions – baggage or SAF
In the context of a standard flight scenario (as outlined in information box A at the bottom of this page), it becomes evident that a single 20 kg bag carries a carbon footprint of approximately 13.1 kg of CO2 equivalent emissions (CO2e, please refer to information box B for more clarification). With the aircraft typically accommodating 186 seats and a considering a typical load factor of 82.6%, there would be a total of 154 passengers on board. If all 154 passengers collectively reduce their baggage weight by 20 kg, for instance, by opting to travel with carry-on luggage only, the resulting reduction in the flight's carbon footprint would amount to a significant 2.0 tonnes CO2e. This significant reduction closely aligns with the emissions mitigation effect of using a 10% sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) blend.
When analysing footprint reductions because of using sustainable aviation fuel, it is essential to acknowledge that SAF effectively only reduces CO2 emissions, therefore leaving the non-CO2 emissions unaffected. Consequently, the potential emissions reduction achieved by SAF aligns with the total CO2 emissions of the flight, which stands at 21.8 tonnes for the typical flight in described in information box A. When comparing this with the emissions reduction achievable by reducing baggage weight by 20 kg per passenger, resulting in a collective reduction of 2.0 tonnes CO2e emissions, the impact is strikingly similar to that of using a 10% SAF blend.
It's worth noting that these comparisons assume that SAF achieves net-zero emissions by balancing upstream CO2 uptake with downstream CO2 emissions. In practice, SAF often falls short of achieving true net-zero emissions, potentially diminishing its environmental advantage over conventional aviation fuel, particularly when considering higher upstream non-CO2 emissions associated with SAF production (Dray, et al, 2022). This study's comparison serves as a conservative estimate, and the actual environmental advantage of flying with 20 kg less could potentially exceed that of using a 10% SAF blend when considering upstream emissions in more detail.
Flight emissions – how does it compare to driving
In a typical flight (as illustrated in information box A below), the carbon footprint of a single 20 kg bag amounts to 13.1 kg CO2 equivalent (CO2e) emissions. To put this into perspective, let's look at the emissions from a European car sold in 2019, which emits an average of 122 grams of CO2 per kilometre (g CO2/km) according to the EEA (2023). Then, the carbon footprint of 13.1 kg CO2e from a 20 kg bag would be roughly equivalent to driving a car for 110 kilometres.
Flight emissions – mishandled bags
In the context of baggage mishandling, it's worth noting that a substantial number of bags—26 million, to be precise—were mishandled in 2022 (SITA, 2023). This mishandling has its own environmental consequences.
Considering the previously mentioned carbon footprint of 13.1 kg CO2e for a 20 kg bag on a typical flight, reconciling these mishandled bags with passengers would contribute to a cumulative carbon footprint of approximately 340 kilotons (kt) of CO2e emissions. To put this into perspective, this carbon footprint is roughly equivalent to the emissions generated by approximately 6,500 flights (typical flight, so 1930 km with a Boeing 737-800).
Info box A: the typical flight
The 2019 ICAO Annual Report states that 4.5 billion passengers have flown 8686 billion revenue passenger kilometres in 2019 (ICAO, 2019). Dividing the two, one can conclude that on average, a passenger travels 1930 km per flight. In this study a Boeing 737-800 is considered, as it is currently the most produced and most used aircraft in the world. The aircraft is usually operated with a single class configuration, typically having 186 seats. According to ICAO, the average load factor in 2019 has been 82.6%.
Info box B: CO2 or CO2e
When assessing aviation’s global warming impact, is it essential to not only consider CO2 but also include non-CO2 emissions, such as NOx and contrails. Despite CO2 being a major contributor, these non-CO2 substances have a significant global warming effect and can make aviation's overall climate impact approximately three times greater than when considering CO2 alone (Lee, et al., 2021).Generally, the combined impact of both CO2 and non-CO2 is expressed in kg CO2e, which is a standardized unit of measurement used to express the total global warming potential of various greenhouse gases in terms of the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that would produce the same level of warming over a specified time period.
CASCADE. (2011). Energy and Technical Characterization, Operational Scenarios of European Airports as Open Spaces.
Dray, L., Schäfer, A. W., Grobler, C., Falter, C., Allroggen, F., Stettler, M. E., & Barrett, S. R. (2022). Cost and emissions pathways towards net-zero climate impacts in aviation. Nature Climate Change, 956-962.
European Environment Agency. (2023). CO2 performance of new passenger cars in Europe. Retrieved from https://www.eea.europa.eu/ims/co2-performance-of-new-passenger
ICAO. (2019). The World of Air Transport in 2019. Annual Report 2019.
Lee, D., Fahey, D., Skowron, A., Allen, M., Burkhardt, U., Chen, Q., . . . Wilcox, L. (2021). The contribution of global aviation to anthropogenic climate forcing for 2000 to 2018. Atmospheric Environment.
SITA. (2023). Baggage IT Insights 2023.