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 45% by 2035.

The EU has stated its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions

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 impacts of the aviation sector will continue to receive community and political scrutiny. The EU has stated its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions to below 1990 levels, targeting a 20% reduction by 2020 and at least 40% by 2030.

The European transport sectors are expected to play a big 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. Under this trading scheme, aircraft operators must monitor and report their annual emissions data. In accordance with regulations, aircraft operators are approved permits based on their requirements and monitoring plan. An annual reporting procedure effectively measures the quality of the submitted data, verifying the compliance cycle of the EU ETS. Following approval, operators can sell any surplus permits to other operators; with operators in deficit able to purchase permits from EU auctions, other operators, other emissions sources in the EU ETS, and/or international trading systems.

Engine emission limits for NOx have also been introduced as part of the drive for continuous improvement, with additional standards for engine CO2 and particulate emissions 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. Contributing to the acidification and eutrophication of water and soil plus 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 industry has been very slow, however there is acceptance that these fuels will be integral to reducing GHG emissions from this sector in future. Across Europe, 92 airports are currently 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 these 92 airports are also carbon neutral. It is heartening that 80% of passengers in Europe are now transiting through an airport that has a certified environmental or quality management system.

The European aviation industry is taking their responsibility seriously

Climate change is a big risk for the European aviation sector, given that likely impacts include rising lea levels plus more frequent and disruptive weather patterns – both factors directly influencing flight operations and logistics. 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, policies and strategies 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 European aviation industry is taking their responsibility seriously and playing their part in fighting climate change.

The 2016 EU European Aviation Environmental Report provides interesting insights into an industry that some people may not automatically think of when climate change comes to mind. Given that aviation is an industry with far reaching environmental impacts for all of us, it must obviously play its part in reducing its GHG emissions in order 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. In Europe, a failure to reduce its GHG output means aircraft emissions may indeed rise by more than 40% over the next 20 years, as predicted by the EU. Such an increase will make it very difficult for the Europe to reach its 2020 and 2030 GHG reduction targets – which on an international scale will make our united goal of limiting global warming to 2°C extremely difficult.

Read the EU ‘European Aviation Environmental Report 2016’ report here


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