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European aviation ‘in numbers’ highlights significant environmental challenges ahead

The New Year saw the publication of the second European Aviation Environmental Report (EAER). The headline message is a familiar one: “the contribution of aviation activities to climate change, noise and air quality impacts is increasing, thereby affecting the health and quality of life of European citizens”. While there have been technological and operational improvements in recent years, and measures such as the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), their combined effect hasn’t kept pace with strong growth in the demand for air travel. 

The report, a joint initiative by EuroControl, the European Environment Agency and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, assesses the performance of the aviation sector across a number of environmental indicators, comparing data for 2017 with the figures for 2014 (the date of the first EAER) and for 2005 (as a historic comparison). Many European airports have seen significant growth during this period. In 2017, commercial flights flew a staggering 1,643 billion passenger kilometres, up 20% in just three years (around 7% per year), and 60% since 2005 (around 5% per year). 

Despite the introduction of less noisy aircraft, in 2017 more people were exposed to noise than in 2005. Measured across some of Europe’s busiest 47 airports, the number of people inside the 55dB Lden noise contours (a metric that gives an extra weighting to noise during the evening and the night) rose to 2.58 million in 2017. This is particularly disappointing, since between 2005 and 2014 the number had reduced – from 2.27 million to 2.21 million. One factor in the reversal of this trend is the slowing down of fleet technology improvements. The average noise energy per flight decreased by only 1% between 2014 and 2017 compared to a decrease of 14% between 2005 and 2017 (equivalent to over 1% per year).

Aircraft fuel efficiency improved 8% for commercial flights between 2014 and 2017, maintaining the gains seen in earlier years, and overall, measured between 2005 and 2017, average fuel consumption decreased by 24% (2% per year). Nevertheless, the increase in flights during this period led to an increase in total emissions. Compared to 2014, gross CO2 emissions in 2017 rose by 10% to 163Mt CO2 and NOx, which has a net climate warming impact when emitted at altitude, increased by 12% to 839,000 tonnes. This increase contributed to a 3% rise in net European aviation CO2 emissions over the three-year period. (While the EU emissions trading system imposes a cap on emissions from intra-EU flights, air travel to and from Europe from other international destinations is not included in the cap). Aviation now accounts for 3.6% of the total EU28 greenhouse gas emissions (making the percentage of EU emissions from aviation higher than the global average).

Will things improve in the future? 

It may be possible to stabilise noise exposure, the report concludes, but only under an improbable assumption that there will be no increase in population and no airport expansion, with growth permitted only within the constraints of current infrastructure.  

Meanwhile the expected 42% growth in the number of flights between 2017 and 2040 is predicted to result in a 21% increase in CO2 emissions. Alternative aviation fuels are considered likely to remain limited in the short term, and while the report identifies potential for Europe to increase its bio-based aviation fuel production capacity, airline uptake is expected to be small due to various factors, including “the cost relative to conventional aviation fuel and low priority in most national bioenergy policies.” Meanwhile, while some in the industry had hoped that more direct routing of aircraft would deliver significant CO2 reductions, the introduction of Free Route Airspace has saved only approximately 0.5% of total aviation CO2 emissions between 2014 and 2017. 

The full report can be downloaded here.