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First EU-wide report on aviation’s environmental impacts shows growing challenges

3rd February, 2016

A new report by European environment and aviation agencies – the European Aviation Environmental Report  – has found that the growth in European air traffic has outstripped technological and operational improvements over the past 25 years, leading to increased environmental pressures which are forecast to intensify out to 2035.

The report is a collaboration between the European Commission, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the European Environment Agency (EEA) and EUROCONTROL (see the end of this article for an explanation about each of their roles in EU aviation policy).

The trends

Between 1990 and 2005, the extent of environmental impacts – noise, CO2 emissions and air pollution – and the number of flights grew at similar rates. However, emissions and noise exposure today remain around the same as in 2005 due primarily to the economic downturn in 2008 that has seen little change in the number of flights.

A major change that has occurred since 2005 is as a result of changing airline practises: the average number of passengers per flight increased from 87 in 2005 to 113 in 2014. This has meant that passenger numbers grew by around 25% between 2005 and 2014, while the actual number of flights declined by 0.5%. The lack of a relationship between passenger growth and the number of flights is one of the arguments used in AEF’s recent report: ‘The Runway Myth’.

Comparison of trends (since 2005 and out to 2035) in noise, CO2, NOx, passenger numbers, and flights. Source: European Aviation Environmental Report

Comparison of trends (since 2005 and out to 2035) in noise, CO2, NOx, passenger numbers, and flights. Source: European Aviation Environmental Report

The impacts

Aircraft noise

Around 2.5 million people were exposed to aircraft noise levels above 55 dBA Lden (which is the level EU members states are required to map and report noise under the Environmental Noise Directive) in 2014 but this figure was only for the 45 major European airports which had submitted noise exposure data to the European Commission. The actual figure, according to the report, was around 5 million people in 2012.

While average jet aircraft noise decreased by around 4 dB per decade since 1960, the improvement has recently slowed to 2 dB per decade. As a result, the population exposed to noise above 55 dBA Lden (measured over 24 hours) decreased by only 2% between 2005 and 2014. The report highlights that new aircraft are quieter than previous generations with fleet renewal being a major factor contributing to reduced noise from a single flight. However, the population exposed to aircraft noise levels above 55 dBA Lden is forecast to increase by 15% up to 2035.

Changing practices associated with low cost carriers increasing the number of flights each aircraft makes a day (with the average number of flights per day per aircraft increasing from 3.1 in 2005 to 3.4 in 2014) have led to increases in morning and evening levels of aircraft noise as airlines attempt to fit in additional flights. AEF’s recent report on the health impacts of aircraft noise illustrates the impact of morning and evening flights on the health of children, shift workers and vulnerable populations.

CO2 emissions

CO2 emissions from aviation have increased by around 77% between 1990 and 2005 and a further 5% from 2005 to 2014, according to the report, and are forecast to grow by a further 45% up to 2035. This was despite the fact that average fuel burn per passenger kilometre flown for passenger aircraft, excluding business aviation, went down by 19% between 2005 and 2014.

The report emphasises several factors that are leading to increasing CO2 emissions from the aviation sector. Firstly, the fleet across Europe is slowly ageing, with the average age of aircraft increasing from 9.6 years in 2005 to 10.3 years in 2014. Low cost airlines tend to have newer fleets but all-cargo aircraft have an average age of 19 years.

A second factor is that the uptake of alternative fuels in the aviation sector has been “very slow”, states the report, despite the aviation industry promoting the importance of biofuels for addressing aviation emissions. Assistance for the industry has also come from the European Commission through the European Advanced Biofuels Flightpath which has an aim to produce two million tonnes of sustainably produced biofuel for civil aviation annually by 2020. The report notes that this target is “unlikely” to be met.

The report argues there is a need for market based measures, including the EU emissions trading scheme, to meet aviation’s emissions reduction targets as technological and operational improvements alone are not considered sufficient, mirroring previous analyses by ICAO.

Air pollution

A key finding in the report is that NOx emissions from aviation doubled between 1990 and 2014, and are forecast to grow by a further 43% between 2014 and 2035, posing a threat to public health.  According to the report, the aviation sector is now responsible for 14% of all EU transport NOx emissions, and 7% of the total EU NOx emissions, as other economic sectors have achieved significant reductions. The report says that improvements driven by new emissions standards (usually agreed by the UN body ICAO’s Committee on Aviation and Environmental Protection) have come too slowly, indicating the importance of ambitious international environmental standards.

The Timing

The report’s launch coincides with the environment committee (CAEP) of the UN aviation body, ICAO, meeting in Montreal to decide on a CO2 standard for new aircraft, with Europe being pressured to show more ambition. AEF are present at the CAEP meeting to call for a CO2 standard that will drive reductions in emissions.

The new report also comes only a couple of months after the European Commission’s Aviation Strategy for Europe was published which gave little attention to the environmental impact of flying.

Download European Aviation Environmental Report 2016

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Who’s who in the report?

  1. The European Commission – responsible for Directives and long-term targets that are intended to improve the environment in Europe by tackling air pollution, noise and CO2 emissions.
  2. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) – responsible for introducing environmental and safety certification for aviation products, including adoption of international standards for noise and pollutants. EASA has been given the responsibility to update the European Aviation Environmental Report every three years to assess progress.
  3. The European Environment Agency (EEA) – provides independent information on the environment in Europe and has published reports on issues including exposure to noise across Europe.
  4. EUROCONTROL – responsible for air navigation across Europe

Image credit: Shortbread1015DT via Flickr