New route needed to improve aviation industry’s poor climate change response

Despite the relationship between airlines, airports, and air pollution being understood for decades, the sector is failing to take necessary action and its impact is getting worse. 

The aviation industry is looking increasingly like it will need to develop and deploy radical, drastic changes in order to reverse its troubling environmental performance, threatening to upend it.

silhouette of airplane flying over the field during sunset

New work published in the journal Nature by researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy has shone a light on the sector’s failure to tackle emissions and its worsening impact on the atmosphere. Currently, the industry is responsible for around 1bn tonnes of CO2 per year, roughly comparable to Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, with the Europe’s five busiest airports alone emitting of the gas than Sweden

While efforts to limit noise pollution from flights have been successful to some extent, the same cannot be said for emissions. Overall, airplanes have seen a 2.5% increase in airborne pollutants per year, and – alarmingly – if things remain the same, more CO2 will be produced over the next 30 years than has been in the industry’s entire history to date. 

One of the biggest problems is that unlike power generation and road vehicles, both of which are switching to renewables at a rapid rate, there is no scalable carbon-free solution for air travel. While some of the biggest players in the industry are working on green designs, such as Airbus’ emissions-free ZEROe, unveiled in 2020, and an ongoing project in Hamburg exploring hydrogen as an aviation fuel, these ideas are still some way off becoming a reality, as our recent Big Interview with former Exon-Mobil research scientist Hugh Helferty made clear. 

‘Most strategies that governments and firms are pursuing today rely on familiar technologies. That approach looks shortsighted because many of these technologies don’t work at scale,’ said coauthor David Victor, professor of innovation and public policy at the UC San Diego School of Global Policy, and Strategy co-director of the Deep Decarbonization Initiative. ‘Eliminating aviation’s impact on global warming requires major disruptions to how the industry operates today. The longer that reality is evaded, the harder it will be to find effective solutions.’

Image: Robert Hrovat





Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top