Aviation is considered to be one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. For example, someone who flies from London to New York and back generates roughly the same level of emissions an average person in the European Union does by heating his home for a whole year! Direct emissions from aviation account for more than 2% of global emissions. Since 1990, CO2 emissions from international aviation have increased 83%. If global aviation was a country, it would rank in the top 10 emitters.
That said, airplanes are not the world’s biggest polluter. Aviation’s share of global greenhouse gases is still a fraction of the carbon dioxide emitted by vehicle traffic around the world. However, emissions from airlines are widely expected to grow over the next few years with more people now being able to fly, thanks to many countries liberalising airline regulations, the development of air transport infrastructure and low-cost carriers making flying affordable for more people. Over the next two decades, the number of fliers will double, estimates the International Air Transport Association. By 2036, fliers will take 7.8bn trips annually.
And by 2020, global international aviation emissions are projected to be around 70% higher than in 2005. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) forecasts that by 2050 they could grow by a further 300-700%. Certainly, air transport is a vital feature of the modern, globalised world, connecting people and businesses across oceans and continents. The global aviation industry supports more than 63mn jobs and accounts for 3.5% of the global GDP ($2.7tn — based on 2014 data compiled by IATA). The benefits of air travel are abundantly clear, but this connectivity creates huge environmental challenges as well. For instance, in 2016, civil aviation, as a whole, emitted around 814mn tonnes of CO2, which is roughly 2% of man-made carbon emissions.
When jet fuel is burned, the carbon in the fuel is released and bonds with oxygen (O2) in the air to form carbon dioxide (CO2). Burning jet fuel also releases water vapour, nitrous oxides, sulphate and soot. Some researchers predict these gases have a far greater effect than carbon dioxide when emitted in the higher levels of the atmosphere. A special characteristic of aircraft emissions is that most of them are produced at cruising altitudes high in the atmosphere. Scientific studies have shown that these high-altitude emissions have a more harmful climate impact because they trigger a series of chemical reactions and atmospheric effects that have a net warming effect.
Airline operations, undoubtedly, contribute to climate change and the industry needs to take the responsibility to lessen this impact extremely seriously. Stopping carbon emissions from airlines is wishful thinking, but controlling them makes real sense. Jet fuel costs money, and using less of the stuff is a predictable way to beef up the airline bottom line. Sounds difficult, but certainly worth doing. Saving fuel, by reducing carbon emissions, can help save the planet. A group of researchers in the UK think that airlines can cut emissions in half by 2050 with proper planning and execution.
In a research paper in ‘Nature Climate Change’ they said those savings would come in the form of things like new aircraft designs, fuel formulations, and flight patterns. And crazy as it may sound, all those switches could come for free, or pretty close to it. Researchers note that a single airplane can consume up to 3mn gallons of fuel per year. So, one is clearly looking at millions of dollars a year in fuel costs. Obviously, a single percent improvement in fuel efficiency can save an airline operator hundreds of thousands of dollars. Multiply this over a fleet of planes and one can see why efficiency is so important for all of us.
The current high oil prices also seem to provide the necessary economic spur for developing one of the most emissions-cutting technologies — synthetic fuels from biomass. Sustainable aviation fuels, which are already being used on certain commercial flights, will have the potential to cut emissions by up to 80%. But developing biomass fuels, which includes things like algae — are highly research-intensive and less cost-effective, at least for the time being. Some bio-fuels do show promise, but without strict standards, sceptics warn, aviation’s thirst could destroy our forests to make way for what has been dubbed ‘jet-fuel plantations’.
That would make global warming even worse and hurt the people whose lives depend on forests. A carbon offsetting method proposed by IATA is the development of new, more efficient aircraft and engines that can substantially decrease CO2 emissions. New technology aircraft are, on average, around 15-20% more fuel-efficient than the models they replace. Carbon offsetting also involves spending money to make up for putting carbon into the atmosphere. In other words, the money one spends effectively offsets one’s carbon emissions by supporting projects that produce clean energy or reduce carbon emissions in other ways.
Critics of carbon offsetting, however, say that spending to offset emissions merely allows polluters to feel better about their emissions and disincentives from working to reduce them. While this may be true, if you’re going to fly, offsetting your carbon emissions is still better than doing nothing. At stake is our planet — the only one we have. Higher carbon emissions will result in climate change and impact our lives forever.
Sources and photo-credits: Gulf Times