Greenwash (inaccurate) statement: “Less CO2 per passenger by air than by car says Virgin”

The aviation industry knows it is provides an exceptionally high carbon way to travel, and is keen to find ways to try to disguise this fact.  In reality, a passenger on a medium length flight (2,000 – 4,000 miles or so) in a modern plane is probably responsible for roughly the same amount of carbon as someone driving the same distance  alone in a car that does an average around 48 miles per gallon (like at Toyota Yaris).  That is excluding non-CO2 climate effects. Approximate figures – each car trip (including number of passengers) is different, as is each plane trip. Saying that air travel per passenger is lower carbon than a car journey is missing the point for two important reasons: 1. Most people would think twice about driving 3,000 or 4,000 miles. And back. It is easy and quick (as well as much cheaper) by plane.  So people make these trips more often, and are encouraged to travel more.  2. Figures do not take in to the non-CO2 impacts of aircraft emissions, which are likely to approximately double the climate impact.  So now Virgin are trying to make out that flying is lower carbon than driving. This is disingenuous nonsense – comparing chalk and cheese – and is choosing very carefully which figures to use. As WWF-UK point out, Virgin is increasing its number of passengers, and getting people to fly more often, as fast as it can, so raising the overall emissions. Don’t be hoodwinked by the greenwash!


Aviation growth in passenger kilometers flown, with tiny reductions in per passenger carbon emissions:  “Like beating your wife more often, but with a slightly smaller stick…”


Virgin’s Sustainability Report 2013      2 page summary                                   They say  “In 2012 our total carbon footprint was 5.9 million tonnes CO2”

The Virgin Sustainability Report 2013 full report 



Less CO2 per passenger by air than by car says Virgin


21 October 2013, source edie newsroom


Investment in new, more efficient aircraft has cut CO2 by 30% in some cases, says Virgin

Investment in new, more efficient aircraft has cut CO2 by 30% in some cases, says Virgin

Virgin Atlantic has claimed that travelling by air is greener than travelling by car. 

Related article     – 

In its 2013 sustainability programme update, published this week, the airline states that last year its CO2 emissions per passenger kilometre (PK) fell to 119.3g.

This is “interesting”, the company states, given that in the UK the average new car emissions were “133.1gCO2/km in 2012”.   (see

119 gCO2/km is about 48 mpg.  

133 gCO2/km is about 49 miles per gallon.                      

187 gCO2/km is about 35 mpg.  

The airline said the fall in UK emissions is due to carrying “more passengers at higher load factors”.

Virgin also confirmed that it continues to cut its overall carbon footprint – 80% of which comes from flying. Huge investment in new, more efficient aircraft has cut CO2 by 30% in some cases, it said.

Environmental groups have questioned whether Virgin is focusing on the wrong impacts, with more people flying than ever before. The company’s carbon footprint, though reduced by 6% since 2007, still stands at 5.9m tonnes.

WWF-UK head of business, Dax Lovegrove, told that Virgin Atlantic and other airlines should “focus less on per passenger and per kilometre CO2 efficiencies and more on managing the overall carbon footprint from the general rise in passengers travelling over great distances”.

He cited a raft of changes that are required to ensure “climate smart mobility” including electric vehicles, better public transport and more car sharing. Indeed, a Virgin spokeswoman admitted that the car emissions are based on one person travelling in the car.

Aviation emissions have doubled since 1990 due to increasing passenger demand, with most growth coming from international flights, according to the Committee on Climate Change.

In 2011 the aviation sector accounted for 6% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the UK, with the vast majority (95%) resulting from international flights.

Writing in the company’s 2013 sustainability update, Virgin Atlantic CEO Craig Kreeger claimed: “We fully accept our part in reducing the negative consequences of air travel so that we can all continue to make the most of its benefits. Our number one priority is to reduce the carbon emissions from flying our aircraft.”

Earlier this month, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) agreed on a global strategy to progress technology, operations and alternative fuels in a bid to reduce emissions.
However, the European Commission’s proposal to have foreign airlines included in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) was opposed by China, India, Russia and the US, who argue that the scheme impacts flights far outside the EU.

Virgin Atlantic also confirmed that work on its low carbon aviation fuel, in partnership with LanzaTech, continues; the aim is to make the fuel “a commercial reality” within the next couple of years.

The technology uses a microbe to convert waste carbon monoxide gases from
steel mills into ethanol. The alcohol is then converted to jet fuel through a second stage process.

edie staff




Some comments from Airport Watch members:

The devil is, as always, in the detail of the base data and the assumptions: both for aircraft and cars.  Everyone knows that vehicle manufacturers’ fuel consumption data is obtained by such artificial means as to be meaningless to anyone outside the EU bureaucracy, and most also for most people going on a holiday, the average load factor for car journeys is in excess of unity.  ie. not one person  holidaying alone.   [Most plane trips are for holidays or leisure].

The derivation of the figures in the Sustainability Report are not clear.  Are Mr. Branson’s men are speaking with forked tongue before we look at exactly what fuel burn figures they’re using for aircraft: e.g. are they using the cruising-speed consumption figures and conveniently ignoring the 30% of fuel that’s burned during climbout and approach for “the average flight”?

A key thing is that the climate impacts of aviation are likely to be twice that of the CO2 alone, (NOx, water vapour, contrails) so by that reckoning they are still roughly double the climate impacts of car travel even with 1 pasenger per car.  In addition it is hard for a car driver to frivolously drive 8000 miles, but easy to fly to Los Angeles or Las Vegas, so the real impacts are much higher.

What they are doing is using the worst case scenario for a car (pretty much) and comparing it with the average case scenario for flying.  All per KM of course, failing to take any form of totals into account.

No surprise, based on this comparison, that flying is “greener” than driving. Typical of the greenwash spouted by the industry on a daily basis.




Below are some indicative figures of CO2 emissions for various ranges of cars, from tiny to huge.

From a website called Clean Green Cars.

Environmental Scores by Vehicle Type

We have rated each model range according to its CO2 output within its segment. The reason for categorising CO2 by segment is that an MPV like a Ford Galaxy is bound to produce more CO2 than a city car – but if you have a large family it is not very helpful to be told that a Toyota Aygo is environmentally-friendly. We have rated each model against the average for its segment, so a CO2 output of 140g/km would be very good for a large family car like a Vectra, but very poor for a city car like a Ford Ka.

Incidentally we have taken the average CO2 figure for each model range. That does not mean that every version of a model range has the same star rating (e.g. a Focus TDCi is much better than a Focus ST). However, it shows how well the model range performs overall.

For reference, these are the upper limits to earn a five star CO2 rating in each segment:

SegmentCO2 g/km
City car (e.g. Ford Ka):120
Supermini (e.g. Renault Clio)130
Small MPV (e.g. Vauxhall Meriva)140
Small Family (e.g. VW Golf)140
Small Sports (e.g. Mazda MX-5)150
Large Family (e.g. Ford Mondeo)150
Medium MPV (e.g. Vauxhall Zafira)150
Compact Executive (e.g. Audi A4)160
Executive (e.g. BMW 5 Series)180
Large MPV (Renault Espace)180
Off Road (e.g. Toyota RAV4)180
Performance sports (e.g. Porsche 911)200
Luxury (e.g. Mercedes S Class)220




and another assessment of the issues:


Flying vs Driving: Which is Better for the Environment?

Driving emits less carbon than flying, but flying costs less on long trips



Dear EarthTalk:
How can I determine if it is more eco-friendly to fly or drive somewhere?– Christine Matthews, Washington, DC


The simple answer is that driving in a relatively fuel-efficient car (25-30 miles per gallon) usually generates fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than flying. In assessing the global warming impact of a trip from Philadelphia to Boston (about 300 miles), the environmental news website calculates that driving would generate about 104 kilograms of carbon dioxide (CO2)—a leading greenhouse gas—per typical medium-sized car, regardless of the number of passengers, while flying on a commercial jet would produce some 184 kilograms of CO2 per passenger.

Flying vs Driving: Carpooling Generates Fewest Greenhouse Gases Per Passenger

What this also means, of course, is that while even driving alone would be slightly better from the standpoint of greenhouse-gas emissions, carpooling really makes environmental sense. Four people sharing a car would collectively be responsible for emitting only 104 kilograms of CO2, while the same four people taking up four seats on a plane would generate some 736 kilograms of carbon dioxide.

Flying vs Driving: Cross-Country Calculations Show Stark Contrasts

Journalist Pablo Päster of extends the comparison further, to a cross-country trip, and comes to similar conclusions. (Differences in the math are attributable to the use of slightly varying assumptions regarding fuel usage and source equations.) Flying from San Francisco to Boston, for example, would generate some 1,300 kilograms of greenhouse gases per passenger each way, while driving would account for only 930 kilograms per vehicle. So, again, sharing the drive with one or more people would lower each individual’scarbon footprint from the experience accordingly.

Flying vs Driving: Air Travel Most Economical for Long Distances

But just because driving might be greener than flying doesn’t mean it always makes the most sense. With current high gas prices, it would cost far more in fuel to drive clear across the United States in a car than to fly nonstop coast-to-coast. And that’s not even factoring in the time spent on restaurants and hotels along the way. Those interested in figuring out driving fuel costs can consult AAA’s nifty online Fuel Cost Calculator, where you can enter your starting city and destination as well as the year, make and model of your car to get an accurate estimate of what it will cost to “fill ‘er up” between points A and B.

Flying vs Driving: Carbon Offsets Can Balance Travel-Related Emissions

Once you’ve made your decision whether to drive or fly, consider purchasing carbon offsets to balance out the emissions you are generating with cash for renewable energy development.TerraPass, among others, makes it easy to calculate your carbon footprint based on how much you drive and fly (as well as home energy consumption), and then will sell you offsets accordingly. (Monies generated through carbon offsets fund alternative energy and other projects, such as wind farms, that will ultimately take a bite out of or eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions).

Flying vs Driving: Public Transportation Beats Both Car and Air Travel

Of course, an individual’s emissions from riding a bus (the ultimate carpool) or a train would be significantly lower. Paster adds that a cross-country train trip would generate about half the greenhouse-gas emissions of driving a car. The only way to travel greener might be to bicycle or walk—but the trip is long enough as it is.



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