Aviation impacts the environment because aircraft engines emit noise, particulates, gases, contribute to climate change and global dimming. Despite emission reductions from automobiles and more fuel-efficient and less polluting turbofan and turboprop engines, the rapid growth of air travel in recent years contributes to an increase in total pollution attributable to aviation. In the EU greenhouse gas emissions from aviation increased by 87% between 1990 and 2006.
There is an ongoing debate about possible taxation of air travel and the inclusion of aviation in an emissions trading scheme, with a view to ensuring that the total external costs of aviation are taken into account.
In addition to the CO2 released by most aircraft in flight through the burning of fuels such as Jet-A (turbine aircraft) or Avgas (piston aircraft), the aviation industry also contributes greenhouse gas emissions from ground airport vehicles and those used by passengers and staff to access airports, as well as through emissions generated by the production of energy used in airport buildings, the manufacture of aircraft and the construction of airport infrastructure.
While the principal greenhouse gas emission from powered aircraft in flight is CO2, other emissions may include nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, (together termed oxides of nitrogen or NOx), water vapour and particulates (soot and sulfate particles), sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide (which bonds with oxygen to become CO2 immediately upon release), incompletely-burned hydrocarbons, tetra-ethyl lead (piston aircraft only), and radicals such as hydroxyl, depending on the type of aircraft in use.
The contribution of civil aircraft-in-flight to global CO2 emissions has been estimated at around 2%. However, in the case of high-altitude airliners which frequently fly near or in the stratosphere, non-CO2 altitude-sensitive effects may increase the total impact on anthropogenic (man-made) climate change significantly — this problem is not present for aircraft that routinely operate at lower altitudes well inside the troposphere, such as balloons, airships, helicopters, most light aircraft, and many commuter aircraft.
Subsonic aircraft-in-flight contribute to climate change in four ways:
In attempting to aggregate and quantify these effects the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has estimated that aviation’s total climate impact is some 2-4 times that of its CO2 emissions alone (excluding the potential impact of cirrus cloud enhancement). This is measured as radiative forcing. While there is uncertainty about the exact level of impact of NOx and water vapour, governments have accepted the broad scientific view that they do have an effect. Accordingly, more recent UK government policy statements have stressed the need for aviation to address its total climate change impacts and not simply the impact of CO2.
The IPCC has estimated that aviation is responsible for around 3.5% of anthropogenic climate change, a figure which includes both CO2 and non-CO2 induced effects. The IPCC has produced scenarios estimating what this figure could be in 2050. The central case estimate is that aviation’s contribution could grow to 5% of the total contribution by 2050 if action is not taken to tackle these emissions, though the highest scenario is 15%. Moreover, if other industries achieve significant cuts in their own greenhouse gas emissions, aviation’s share as a proportion of the remaining emissions could also rise. Per passenger kilometre, figures from British Airways suggest carbon dioxide emissions of 0.1kg for large jet airliners (a figure which does not account for the production of other pollutants or condensation trails).
Modern jet aircraft are significantly more fuel efficient (and thus emit less CO2 in particular) than 30 years ago. . Moreover, manufacturers have forecast and are committed to achieving reductions in both CO2 and NOx emissions with each new generation of design of aircraft and engine. The accelerated introduction of more modern aircraft therefore represents a major opportunity to reduce emissions per passenger kilometre flown.
Other opportunities arise from the optimisation of airline timetables, route networks and flight frequencies to increase load factors (minimise the number of empty seats flown),together with the optimisation of airspace.
Another possible reduction of the climate-change impact is the limitation of cruise altitude of aircraft. This would lead to a significant reduction in high-altitude contrails for a marginal trade-off of increased flight time and an estimated 4% increase in CO2 emissions. Drawbacks of this solution include very limited airspace capacity to do this, especially in Europe and North America and increased fuel burn due to jet aircraft being less efficient at lower cruise altitudes.
However, the total number of passenger kilometres is growing at a faster rate than manufacturers can reduce emissions, and at present there is no readily available alternative to burning kerosene. The growth in the aviation sector is therefore likely to continue to generate an increasing volume of greenhouse gas emissions. However some scientists and companies such as GE Aviation and Virgin Fuels are researching biofuel technology for use in jet aircraft. As part of this test Virgin Atlantic Airways flew a Boeing 747 from London Heathrow Airport to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport on 24 February 2008, with one engine burning a combination of coconut oil and babassu oil. Greenpeace's chief scientist Doug Parr said that the flight was "high-altitude greenwash" and that producing organic oils to make biofuel could lead to deforestation and a large increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
The majority of the world's aircraft are not large jetliners but smaller piston aircraft, and many are capable of using ethanol as a fuel, with major modifications. While ethanol also releases CO2 during combustion, the plants cultivated to make it draw that same CO2 out of the atmosphere while they are growing, making the fuel closer to climate-change-neutral. The only problem is the US government's choice of using ethanol from corn since it takes more energy to produce than is returned, it displaces food crops and thus raises the price of food and causes soil degradation.
While they are not suitable for long-haul or transoceanic flights, turboprop aircraft used for commuter flights bring two significant benefits: they often burn considerably less fuel per passenger mile, and they typically fly at lower altitudes, well inside the tropopause, where there are no concerns about ozone or contrail production. For even shorter flights, air taxi service using newer, fuel-efficient four- or six-seat light piston aircraft could provide an even lower environmental impact.
An alternative method for reducing the environmental impact of aviation is to constrain demand for air travel. The UK study Predict and Decide - Aviation, climate change and UK policy, notes that a 10 per cent increase in fares generates a 5 to 15 per cent reduction in demand, and recommends that the British government should manage demand rather than provide for it. This would be accomplished via a strategy that presumes "… against the expansion of UK airport capacity" and constrains demand by the use of economic instruments to price air travel less attractively. A study published by the campaign group Aviation Environment Federation (AEF) concludes that by levying £9 billion of additional taxes the annual rate of growth in demand in the UK for air travel would be reduced to 2 per cent. The ninth report of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee, published in July 2006, recommends that the British government rethinks its airport expansion policy and considers ways, particularly via increased taxation, in which future demand can be managed in line with industry performance in achieving fuel efficiencies, so that emissions are not allowed to increase in absolute terms.
Greenhouse gas emissions from fuel consumption in international aviation, in contrast to those from domestic aviation and from energy use by airports, are not assigned under the first round of the Kyoto Protocol, neither are the non-CO2 climate effects. In place of agreement, Governments agreed to work through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) to limit or reduce emissions and to find a solution to the allocation of emissions from international aviation in time for the second round of Kyoto in 2009 in Copenhagen.
As part of that process the ICAO has endorsed the adoption of an open emissions trading system to meet CO2 emissions reduction objectives. Guidelines for the adoption and implementation of a global scheme are currently being developed, and will be presented to the ICAO Assembly in 2007, although the prospects of a comprehensive inter-governmental agreement on the adoption of such a scheme are uncertain.
Within the European Union, however, the European Commission has resolved to incorporate aviation in the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). A new directive has been adopted by the European Parliament in July 2008 and approved by the Council in October 2008. It will enter into force on 1 January 2012.
Aircraft noise is seen by advocacy groups as being very hard to get attention and action on. The fundamental issues are increased traffic at larger airports and airport expansion at smaller and regional airports.
Published in July 2009.
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