Aviation CO2 emissions are a hot topic of fierce debate. The news in September 2009 was that the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) has revised its estimates and warns that households will need to reduce their carbon emissions by 90% by 2050 in order to offset the growth in aviation comes as a bit of a surprise.
There’s never any mention in these announcements about shipping and the amount of CO2 emissions that shipping generates, or how fast it’s growing. How will we have to modify our lifestyles to accommodate the growth in shipping?
The CCC’s own website lays out the bare facts. In its section on international aviation it tells us that domestic and international aviation accounts for about 2% of total global CO2 emissions and that this figure could rise to 15-20% by the year 2050.
Shipping on the other hand currently accounts for 3% and could account for 15-30% by 2050. However, a report in The Guardian (March, 2007) put the current figure for shipping at 4%.
Either way, shipping accounts for at least 50% more of the CO2 emissions than aviation if not double the amount. So why aren’t climate change protesters chaining themselves to cruise ships, or demonstrating outside dock expansion projects and shipyards? Why isn’t the world’s shipping included in all these debates and recommendations from pressure groups and advisory bodies?
Are you for the planet or just anti aviation?
The anti aviation brigade love to spin the simplistic line that ‘planes are bad, trains, boats, and electric cars are good’ and that this fact alone is enough to slap on more and more ‘green’ taxes on air fares and to cut back on any expansion of airports, but it’s a lot more complicated than that.
As we’ve seen, shipping has a poor record in terms of carbon emissions and it’s getting worse, and every train or electric car needs fossil or nuclear powered power stations to produce the electricity to manufacture it to keep it running.
Meanwhile, aero engineers have known since the days of the Wright brothers that since an aircraft has to carry its fuel aloft the aircraft’s engines and airframe must be as efficient as possible in order to obtain the maximum amount of energy from every gallon of fuel.
In every decade in the last hundred years aero engines have become increasingly more efficient, quieter, and less polluting. A buoyant aviation industry means that the research and the progress can continue.
Update November 2009: More lively debate on the subject here.
Update March 2011: Enviro.aero – Clearer Vision, Cleaner Skies, Corrected broken/moved links to CCC site, 2050 Aviation CO2 Emissions Reduction Plan Unveiled
Update September 2023
A Pragmatic & Balanced Perspective
The aviation industry has long been at the forefront of technological innovation, and it continues to make significant strides in reducing its carbon footprint. While criticisms on emissions do carry weight, it’s important to note that aviation accounts for around 2-3% of global CO2 emissions, a fraction when compared to other sectors like energy production, transportation, and manufacturing. Moreover, as some nations question the utility of air travel, it’s imperative to remember that countries like China are investing heavily in expanding their aviation capacities, a clear indication of the sector’s perceived value and utility.
Engine technology has made remarkable advances in the last decade. Newer engine models are up to 15-20% more fuel-efficient compared to their predecessors. Companies like Rolls-Royce and GE Aviation are pushing the envelope with ultra-efficient turbofan designs and exploring the possibilities of hybrid-electric propulsion. Airbus and Boeing, the two largest players in commercial aviation, are also investing in research to produce aircraft that are not only more aerodynamic but also consume less fuel.
Sustainable Aviation Fuels
Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs) are another exciting frontier. Derived from renewable resources like waste oils, algae, and even household waste, SAFs can significantly cut lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions. Major airlines are increasingly integrating SAFs into their operations, and airports are building the necessary infrastructure to make the large-scale use of these fuels a reality.
What is more, several airlines and aircraft manufacturers are collaborating with tech companies to improve operational efficiencies, such as optimized flight paths that could further reduce fuel consumption and emissions. Even in the field of Urban Air Mobility (UAM), electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft are promising a future of short-range, inner-city air travel with zero emissions.
The aviation industry is not standing still; it is proactive and committed to change. The advancements in engine technologies, fuels, and operational efficiencies underline a broader industry-wide commitment to a sustainable future. Critics often forget these aspects while discussing the environmental impact of aviation. It’s an exciting time for an industry that not only brings the world closer but is also taking definitive steps to ensure that it does so in an increasingly sustainable manner.
Aviation is a complex sector, and there are a number of ways to reduce its impact on the environment. It has come a long way since the Wright brothers first took to the skies, and today it plays a vital role in our global economy. There are some steps that can be taken to reduce aviation CO2 emissions; biofuels, electrically powered or hybrid aircraft, more efficient engines and more.
The aviation industry has made substantial progress in reducing its emissions over the past two decades. In 1990, the aviation sector emitted 1.14 billion metric tons of CO2. This represents a reduction of more than 40% in emissions intensity since 1990.
However, aviation emissions are projected to increase significantly in the coming years as demand for air travel continues to grow. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) projects that aviation emissions will more than double by 2050, if current trends continue.
There are a number of measures that can be taken to mitigate the growth in aviation emissions, including improvements in aircraft technology and operations, and the use of sustainable alternative fuels.