Europe Seeks Ideas on Cutting Aircraft Climate Impact

BRUSSELS, Belgium, March 14, 2005 (ENS) - The European Commission is seeking the views of EU citizens on possible actions to curb the thickening blanket of greenhouse gases emitted by aircraft. Starting today, an Internet consultation will run for eight weeks. The results will feed into a strategy planned for this summer focusing on how economic measures could be used to reduce the climate change impact of aviation.

Across the European Union, carbon dioxide emissions from aviation grew by nearly 70 percent from 1990 to 2002, although the EU's total greenhouse gas emissions fell by three percent during that period.

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Jet aircraft lifts off from Manchester Airport, England. (Photos by Ian Britton courtesy FreeFoto)
Even though there have been improvements to aircraft technology and operational efficiency, they have yet to neutralize the effect of increased traffic, and the Commission projects that growth in emissions is likely to continue in the decades to come.

Air traffic packs a climate punch. A return-flight for two persons from London to New York produces about as much carbon dioxide as an average passenger car in the EU does in a whole year, for example.

World passenger air traffic has increased by about 14 percent in 2004 and the world aircraft fleet is expected to double by 2020, the Commission said.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will increase if traffic growth continues to surpass the historical trend of one to two percent annual improvements in efficiency of aircraft technology and operations.

The Commission is providing technical documents online so citizens can be aware of the latest information about aviation's impact on climate change before they fill out the questionaire.

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Contrails left by a jet aircraft (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
The largest impacts of aircraft on climate are through CO2, nitrogen oxides, and contrail formation, according to one technical document, "Aviation and the Global Atmosphere," a publication of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a worldwide team of thousands of scientists established by the World Meteorological Organization and the UN Environment Programme.

As one option for future aviation, the Commission is considering the addition of a fleet of high-speed civil transport (HSCT, supersonic) aircraft replacing part of the subsonic air traffic.

In this scenario, supersonic aircraft are assumed to begin operation in the year 2015, to grow to a maximum of 1,000 aircraft by the year 2040, and to use new technologies to maintain very low emissions.

For a supersonic fleet, water vapor disturbances in the lower stratosphere, which are the most uncertain, are the most important, according to the IPCC report.

Areas of scientific uncertainty are outlined and explored in the technical documents. The largest areas of scientific uncertainty in predicting climate effects due to aviation lie with persistent contrails, with tropospheric ozone increases and consequent changes in methane, with potential particle impacts on "natural" clouds, and with water vapor and ozone perturbations in the lower stratosphere, especially for supersonic transport.

"Although the task of detecting climate change from all human activities is already difficult, detecting the aircraft-specific contribution to global climate change is not possible now and presents a serious challenge for the next century," the report states.

Aircraft contribute a fraction of the whole pattern of human generated global warming - about four percent today and by the year 2050 reaching a projected low of three percent and a high of 15 percent, according to the Commission.

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An Airbus A320 flies into the sunset. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation are reported now under the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, but they are not part of the quantified commitments undertaken by the developed countries that ratified the Kyoto Protocol.

Still, the protocol states that the developed countries shall pursue limitation or reduction of emissions of greenhouse gases from aviation, working through the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

ICAO has been studying various options including taxes, charges and emissions trading but has so far not agreed on implementation of any measures that are likely to solve the problem, the Commission said.

In the 6th Community Environment Action Programme, the EU decided to identify and undertake specific actions to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from aviation if no such action was agreed within ICAO by 2002.

The public consultation questionnaire covers issues such as awareness about climate change from airplanes, opinion about the price of air transport and measures affecting it and policy measures to address the issue.

The questionnaire is online at: http://europa.eu.int/comm/environment/climat/aviation_en.htm. The closing date for participation is April 21, 2005.

The background technical documents are available here.