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Air freight report

16th December, 2009

A new report has been published called ‘Air Freight: The Impacts’.

Nearly all the debate on the environmental impacts of air travel focuses on passenger traffic. But while passengers form the largest component, air freight is significant. For example, it is estimated that air freight contributes 20% or 25% of the greenhouse gas emissions from civil aviation. The report ‘Air Freight: The Impacts’ examine the nature and scale of air freight and looks at the impacts.

The report was researched and written by Rose Bridger and was funded by the Airfields Environment Trust and Polden Puckham Charitable Foundation.

Report cover

See full report or summary. There is also a supplement which gives an airport-by-airport breakdown.

A selection of facts from the report follows.

UK air freight grew rapidly from 1970 through the 1980’s and doubled in the 1990’s. It grew from 580,000 tonnes in 1970 to 2.2 million tonnes in 2002.

In 2003, the Department for Transport forecast that freight growth would grow even more rapidly over the next decade. In reality, UK air freight has stabilised in the last ten years. Meanwhile, global air freight has grown steadily. Globally, air freight climbed to a high of 88.5 million tonnes in 2007.

Only 5% of air freight is domestic flights within the UK. EU flights account for 10% of freight.

Whilst the volume of air freight to non-EU countries is very small in comparison to road, rail and shipping, it amounts to 40 per cent by value of UK trade with these countries.

Air freight falls into two distinct categories. There is the freight which uses the bellyhold capacity of scheduled passenger flights and there is freight which comes in dedicated freighters on routes with high volumes. In the UK 2/3 of freight is carried in passenger planes. Worldwide the figure is nearer half.

While the proportion of goods that are air freighted is small compared to other modes, the  environmental impacts are disproportionate. DEFRA has calculated air freight CO2 emissions per tonne kilometre, for the long haul flights which make up the majority of air freight, as about 4.6 times those of road transport, up to 29 times those of rail transport and between 30 and over 150 times the emissions of shipping. (These comparisons refer to long haul flights, which constitute the majority of air freight.)

It is difficult to disaggregate cargo from passenger flights to assess the greenhouse gas emissions separately, especially when considering freight carried as belly hold. But it is estimated that freight accounts for 20 or 25% of aviation’s total CO2 emissions.

The UK imports more air freight by weight, 57%, than it exports, at 43%. The trade gap is particularly marked in international freight outside the EU, which accounts for 85% of UK air freight. The value of the imports outside the EU was £31.3 billion, whilst the value of the imports was £51.1 billion, producing a trade deficit of £20 billion.