Technology and Operations
In the past, technology improvements have resulted in significant reductions in the emissions from individual planes. While future generations of aircraft are likely to continue to be more fuel efficient on a per passenger basis, the rate of improvement has slowed. Also, as aircraft remain in service for 20-25 years, it takes time for technology improvements to have an impact. In its 2009 report, the Committee on Climate Change estimated that fleet efficiency would improve up to 2050 by an average of 0.8% annually and a similar rate of improvement is anticipated by the UK’s Department for Transport. The growth in the number of aircraft flying globally to accommodate rising passenger demand means that overall emissions will continue to rise despite technological improvements.
For aviation as a sector to play some role towards avoiding 2°C of global warming, recent studies by the University of Southampton and the Tyndall Centre concluded that demand passenger would have to be limited.
Zero carbon flying?
Ed Davey, the UK’s climate change secretary of state up to the 2015 general election famously said it was “possible to imagine, with technological innovation” zero carbon flying. However, even very ambitious roadmaps supported by the aviation industry do not anticipate zero carbon flying being on the horizon
Better air traffic management is said to offer cheap and easy gains in fuel efficiency. Allowing aircraft to follow fuel-optimal routings and altitude profiles, and minimising queues and stacks could help reduce CO2 while helping airlines to manage their fuel bills. Other operational improvements include improving passenger load and fuel load factors.
NATS is the agency in charge of managing air traffic in the UK and is seeking to reduce “the average carbon footprint of air traffic management per aircraft in the UK by 10% by the end of 2020”, which would according to the organisation result in over two million fewer tonnes of CO2 being produced per year.
In practice, however, there are significant challenges to delivering some of these operational changes. In Europe, roll out of the European Single Sky has been slow as political negotiations continue over the investment required to move towards a more centralised system. In addition, it may not be possible to fully optimise operations to reduce emissions because of the interrelationship with other environmental issues such as noise, where more direct routing of aircraft may in some cases create noise impacts that are unacceptable to local communities or damaging to rural tranquillity.