Air travel

Analysis: The future of air travel in a post COP21 world

By Aisha Rodriguez
Despite natural catastrophes, fluctuations in oil prices and terrorist threats, global air passenger traffic have been increasing rapidly, with a projected annual growth of 5%. This is representative of a growing market largely driven by globalisation and an emerging global middle class – with this growth, comes a rise in greenhouse gas emissions.
The global aviation industry currently accounts for 2% of all man-made carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, and after taking into account projected improvements in aircraft and airport operational efficiencies, this is set to increase to 3% by 2050. However, aviation was not addressed in the global climate deal reached at the UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Paris last December. As such, existing carbon management programmes, such as the UN-endorsed Airport Carbon Accreditation, have been cited as hugely influential in facilitating a low carbon future. Industry-led targets also play a crucial role in narrowing the gap between this ideal future and the status quo. The industry has set a target of halving net carbon emissions at 2005 levels by 2050, and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), along with other aviation leaders, are working towards the world’s first emission reduction standards for commercial aircraft, which is expected  to take force in 2020. These new standards, agreed by 23 countries including the UK, will further encourage innovation in aircraft and airport design, in an industry that has already made significant progress.
Airports are far more resource efficient than before and aeroplanes are far lighter and aerodynamic than they were just ten years ago. In an effort to further contribute to the fight against climate change, ICAO is also due to finalise a ‘Market Based Measure’ later this year, to allow airlines to offset part of their CO2 emissions and achieve carbon neutral growth by purchasing credits from other industries. To bridge the gap, experts are now turning their attention to the matter of alternative fuels, and in particular sustainable biofuels.
Derived from biomass such as plants, biofuels have been heralded by some experts as the key to helping achieve the industry’s targets. Second generation biofuels which can be grown on marginalised land, or land that could not otherwise be used for food crops such as algae and jatropha, have demonstrated reductions in the carbon footprint of aviation fuel by up to 80%. Some leading carriers such as Finnair and Emirates have already successfully piloted the use of biofuels in their commercial flights. Nevertheless, as the technology is in its infancy, tremendous effort is still needed to develop a cost-effective biofuel that will not compromise environmental and social standards.
While it is clear that the industry is not short of laudable climate change mitigation ideas, it remains to be seen whether measures such as alternative fuels and offsets are practical, long-term solutions that will place aviation on a path in line with limiting global warming to 2°C. Achieving a net reduction of carbon emissions, against the projected growth in air traffic in the coming years will be a tall order, which will require strong action by all stakeholders.
Aisha is a sustainability and climate change consultant based in London. Her interests in sustainability are hardly confined to European policies and issues – having grown up in Malaysia, these span out to more regional issues such as sustainable palm oil and trans-boundary air pollution. You can connect with her on Twitter.
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