Is the aviation industry taking their responsibility seriously and playing their part in fighting climate change?
According to a recent European Union (EU) report, aircraft emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx) across Europe are predicted to increase by 45% and 43% respectively over the next twenty years. The ‘European Aviation Environmental Report 2016’ published earlier this month also estimates that the number of scheduled flights will increase by 45% by 2035.
Acknowledging that the aviation sector in Europe provides significant economic and social benefits through the employment it creates and in facilitating global trade and tourism, the report describes this industry’s contribution to climate change, noise and local air quality impacts affecting the health and quality of life of European citizens.
The European air traffic management network manages 27,000 flights and approximately 2.3 million passengers per day. Improvements in aircraft technology and design have not kept up with the demand for air travel and therefore the environmental impact of the aviation sector will continue to receive community and political scrutiny. The EU has stated its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, setting targets for a 20% reduction by 2020 and at least 40% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels.
The transport sector (which includes aviation) is expected to play its part in achieving these targets. For this reason, the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) currently covers emissions from flights within Europe and contributes approximately 65 million tonnes of CO2 emissions reductions. In April each year, aircraft operators must surrender permits equal to their emissions for the previous year. Operators that have more permits than they need can sell them to other operators. Those operators that need more can purchase them from EU auctions, other operators, other emissions sources in the EU ETS or international trading systems.
Engine emission limits for NOx have also been introduced as part of the drive for continuous improvement, and additional standards for engine CO2 and particulate emissions are expected to come into force in the near future. NOx are emitted from fuel combustion and can lead to the formation of other pollutants which impact human health such as particulates and ground level ozone. They can also lead to the acidification and eutrophication of water and soil, and contribute to ozone in the atmosphere. Particulate emissions have also been shown to penetrate deep into the lungs, aggravating existing cardiovascular and lung diseases and cancers in the exposed population.
To date, the uptake of sustainable alternative fuels by the aviation sector has been very slow, however there is acceptance that these fuels will be integral to reducing GHG emissions from the sector in future. Across Europe, 92 airports are part of an Airport Carbon Accreditation program which allows airports to address their CO2 emissions in a variety of ways including better insulation and energy efficiency, switching to green energy sources and encouraging employees, passengers and visitors to use public transport. Twenty of the 92 are carbon neutral. It is heartening that currently 80% of passengers in Europe are transiting through an airport that has a certified environmental or quality management system.
Climate change is a risk for the European aviation sector, given that likely impacts include rising lea levels plus more frequent and disruptive weather patterns. Europe accepted the need for change back in 2010, when EU member states agreed to work through the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) to achieve a 2% global annual average fuel efficiency improvement. Two years later, member states submitted voluntary Action Plans to the ICAO outlining their annual CO2 emissions and policies and action plans to limit or reduce the impact of aviation on the climate. New plans were submitted last year and are expected every three years. This is a positive step as it shows the aviation industry is taking their responsibility seriously and is playing their part in fighting climate change.
The EU European Aviation Environmental Report 2016 provides interesting insights into an industry that some people may not automatically think of when climate change comes to mind. Given that aviation an industry with far reaching environmental impacts, it must obviously play its part in reducing its GHG emissions to combat global climate change – whether that is through revisions in engine design, implementing alternative fuels, joining the Carbon Accreditation program or becoming carbon neutral. A failure to reduce its GHG emissions means it is possible that aircraft emissions in Europe may rise by more than 40% in 20 years as predicted by the EU. Such an increase will make it very difficult for the EU to reach its 2020 and 2030 GHG reduction goals and on a global scale, it will make the goal of limiting warming to 2°C extremely difficult.
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