Civil aviation falling short of climate commitments

The 20-30 year lifespan of commercial aircraft means the effect of efficiency improvements is often delayed. [Curimedia Photography/Flickr]

Energy efficiency in aviation is improving too slowly, and the sector is set to miss its climate objectives, a recent study by the International Council on Clean Transport has found. Journal de l’Environnement reports

For decades now, commercial aviation companies have been caught in a bind. On the one hand, they want to continue to expand an energy intense, high-emission sector. On the other, they want to reduce their carbon footprint.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that commercial flights will carry 7.3 billion passengers per year by 2030, compared to 3.3 billion in 2014. Over the next two decades, air traffic will grow by more than 4% each year.

>>Read: Aviation industry looks for more than hot air on emissions talks

But like many companies that rely on fossil fuels, commercial airlines have committed to certain environmental goals. Airliners, regional jets and military planes produce around 700 million tonnes of carbonic gasses each year (compared to 150 million tonnes in 1960). This represents around 2% of emissions caused by human activity.

If the number of scheduled flights continues to increase at the current rate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) believes that civil aviation will be responsible for 3% of global emissions by the middle of the century. Such a development would not fit well with the green image that airlines and passengers are keen to adopt.

To tackle this seemingly inevitable rise in emissions, the aviation sector has committed to improving its energy efficiency by 2% each year, with the long term goal of halving its emissions between 2005 and 2050. This is no mean feat.

>>Read: EU lawmakers reject deal to exempt foreign flights from CO2 charges

Underperforming aircraft

To reduce its demand for kerosene, the aviation sector aims to use new technologies (lighter structures, more efficient engines), improve the flow of air traffic (to spend less time in the air) and impose carbon quotas on operators. But a study published on Monday 7 September by the International Council on Clean Transport (ICCT) revealed that the industry’s progress towards these objectives is slowing down.

Boeing and Airbus may have managed to cut their planes’ fuel consumption in half since the 1960s, but since the beginning of this decade they have only managed annual efficiency gains of 1%, compared to 2.6% per year in the 1980s. At the current rate, the sector will miss its 2050 climate objectives.

“This study confirms the open secret that plane makers are not delivering the efficient airplanes needed to meet UN goals,” said Andrew Murphy, the sustainable aviation officer at the NGO Transport and Environment.  He added that “With new aircraft having a lifespan of 20-30 years, falling efficiency returns could lock in unnecessary fossil fuel consumption for decades to come, greatly undermining global efforts to decarbonise and limit a temperature increase to under 2 degrees.”

On a more hopeful note, in 2010, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) estimated that the next generation of short and medium haul aircraft could allow operators to make energy efficiency savings of 40% across their fleets. It remains to be seen whether the uptake of these new aircraft will be fast enough to put the sector back on track.

>>Read: China’s trade war threats over aviation emissions “not serious”, MEPs say

This article was previously published by EURACTIV France

The European Commission published a legislative proposal in December 2006, in which it pushed for the inclusion of the aviation sector in the European Emissions Trading System (ETS), in order to bring down the contribution of aviation to climate change, which is modest today but increasing rapidly.

The aim is to impose a CO2 emissions limit on aeroplanes landing at or taking off from EU airports, whilst allowing them to buy and sell 'pollution permits' on the European carbon market. This system would reward those companies that pollute the least.

The regulation came into force on 1 January 2012. But governments from third countries and their airlines have threatened legal action or commercial reprisals against the EU if they are not given special derogations. According to China Air Transport Association (CATA), the official organisation representing the aviation sector in China, the EU ETS cost its airlines €96 million in the first year, a cost that would triple by 2020. The country has also used its status as a developing country to call for special derogations. 

International Council on Clean Transportation

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