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The six issues that aviation must address in order to achieve net-zero emissions

In the year 2020, aviation took a dive. Compared to 2019, the number of individuals flying dropped by three-quarters, resulting in a considerable reduction in aviation-related greenhouse gas emissions. However, as nations open up and people resume flying, aviation is likely to return to earlier levels gradually. By 2023, the industry expects to return to 2019 passenger levels globally, and within a few decades, to be back on track with earlier growth estimates.

This is all terrible news for the environment. By 2050, CO2 emissions from the sector are expected to triple. However, if global warming is to be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the globe must have reached net-zero CO2 pollution by this time. Decarbonizing aviation is a difficult task. It contains several thorny elements, including complex technological solutions, hidden additional climatic consequences, a link to personal liberty, and a disproportionately affluent and influential consumer base. Here are just a handful of the major roadblocks the industry will face on its way to being carbon neutral.

1. The fuel problem

For a long time, the sole option for planes was jet kerosene made from fossil fuels. According to Jagoda Egeland, an OECD aviation policy expert, “flying via air essentially demands a lot of energy. Thus, planes must rely on fuels with high energy density.” “There haven’t been many alternatives with such qualities.”

Aircraft fuel efficiency improves over time. According to Emma Harvey, who works as a sustainability expert who was formerly head of sustainability at the Virgin Atlantic, upgrading from an outdated four-engine jumbo airplane to a more effective twin-engine airplane can decrease carbon emissions by a maximum of 30% every flight. As a result, fleet renewal and upgrades might have an effect on emissions. The savings, however, are insufficient to keep up with the increase in flight numbers. Before the pandemic, aviation was improving at a rate of around 3% per year, while the passenger demand was expanding at a rate of approximately 5% per year.

2. The non-CO2 problem

Aviation emits roughly 2.5 percent of worldwide CO2 emissions, but other gases and particles it generates at high altitudes have a significantly greater warming impact. Contrail clouds and Nitrogen oxides are examples of what are referred to be “non-CO2” impacts. These are rarely mentioned in aviation climate objectives, yet they have the potential to triple the climate effects of aviation when compared to CO2.

These impacts vary significantly depending on the surrounding environmental circumstances, which is both worrisome and encouraging. According to one study, only 2% of aircraft are responsible for 80% of the contrail warming impacts. Since contrails generate their warming effect primarily at night, nighttime flights are particularly problematic.

Although there is still much to learn about these effects, Egeland believes that rules, such as a surcharge on flights flying at particularly unfavorable times of day, might already be implemented to mitigate them.

3. The issue of frequent flyers

Some say that technical solutions are going to be too slow to reduce aviation emissions and that steps to restrict the number of people who fly are required to limit climate damage. However, flying is not a widely practiced sport. In the United Kingdom, about 15 percent of the population takes 70 percent of all flights, and roughly half of the population does not fly in any given year. Cait Hewitt, policy director of the Aviation Environment Federation, said, “That’s a pattern mirrored in many other counties” (AEF). At a worldwide level, the disparities in flying are considerably more pronounced. According to one study, about 1% of the world’s population generates 50% of CO2 through commercial aircraft, while only 2-4 percent of people go overseas each year.

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