Growth in European air travel expected to produce significant gains in carbon emissions

European Aviation Report
The aviation industry is growing in Europe, and with that growth comes an expected rise in carbon emissions.

By Brady Jones
Medill Reports

Carbon emissions from European air travel could increase by at least 21 percent by 2040, according to a newly released study.

The 2019 European Aviation Environmental Report highlights the growth trend in the aviation sector throughout the continent. The number of kilometers flown in Europe has increased by 20 percent since 2014 and 60 percent since 2005.

This gain in travel, however, contributed an estimated 163 million metric tons of full-flight carbon dioxide emissions in 2017—an increase of 10 percent since 2014 and 16 percent since 2005. This is the equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of more than 34 million cars, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency emissions calculator.

The report, published by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), examines this growth by the aviation industry in the context of the European Union’s stated goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. In 2016, the aviation industry was responsible for 3.6 percent of greenhouse gas emissions for the EU and 13.4 percent of its overall transportation emissions. This represents the second highest release of transportation emissions after road traffic.

Violeta Bulc, European Union commissioner for transport, acknowledges in the report that although this growth in air travel means increased revenue and jobs for Europeans, it comes at a significant cost to the environment.

“Aviation has externalities that can’t be overlooked,” she says in the report. “Indeed, as air traffic increases year on year, the same holds true for environmental and health impacts.”

While declining to comment directly on what role the European Union should play in reducing aviation emissions, European Commission spokesperson Stephan Meder pointed to specific ongoing programs supported by the Commission that aim to curb carbon emissions. These include the International Civil Aviation Organization—a specialized United Nations agency—and a program it has implemented called the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation. According to Meder, it is the first ever global program to address carbon dioxide emissions in a specific sector of the economy. Meder declined to comment on whether the Commission supports Europeans reducing their amount of air travel.

The aviation report notes the potential for alternative sustainable aviation fuel sources to help reduce carbon emissions, but it also acknowledges that the impact will likely be minimal for the foreseeable future. Bio-based aviation fuels could be produced from sources such as woody biomass, hydrogenated fats and oils, recycled waste or other renewable sources, says the report, but they are largely used in a minimal role in blended fuel in order to comply with aviation fuel combustion standards. As such, much of the carbon reduction for current aviation biofuels takes place in the fuel production process rather than during flight. Currently, there is not an agreed upon definition of sustainable aviation fuel that is accepted at the international level.

Despite the heightened focus on reducing emissions—the average fuel burn per individual air traveler has actually decreased by 2.4 percent per year from 2014 to 2017—the overall carbon emissions in Europe have increased as a result of an added number of flights, larger size of aircraft and longer distances flown. Any technological advances that will reduce emissions are overcome, however, because more people are flying.

There is a growing recognition of this problem, and for some the answer is simple: stop flying so much. In Europe, the vast train network provides a low-carbon alternative, yet train travel hasn’t stopped the increase in air travel. In the United States, a comparable, carbon-free transportation network does not yet exist.

Parke Wilde, professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Massachusetts, manages a website and Twitter account called Flying Less. He is adamant that universities and professional organizations around the world must lead the way by setting and monitoring goals to reduce the overall number of flights.

“In the U.S. our initiative envisions university communities as leaders and catalysts, showing the way forward for bigger economic sectors,” said Wilde via email. “A key lesson is that we have to act collectively.”

Wilde acknowledges that currently there are limited carbon-free alternatives to air travel available to many Americans, but academics and professionals should still try to set the standard. EASA acknowledges the need to balance aviation industry growth with carbon reductions. In an emailed statement, Jagello Fayl, EASA spokesperson, described several methods for accomplishing this.

“EASA is supporting the implementation of a ‘basket of measures’, in cooperation with international partners, to mitigate aviation’s contribution to climate change,” he said. “These are summarised in the EAER 2019 (European Aviation Environmental Report) and include advanced fuel-efficient technology and design, optimised operational procedures, air traffic management, sustainable aviation fuels and market-based measures.”

Hans Bruyninckx, executive director of the European Economic Area, echoed that personal-responsibility sentiment in the report.

“Europe must lead the way towards a more sustainable aviation sector at home and abroad,” he says. “Strong policies and robust implementation can mitigate future impacts of a growing sector as well as foster innovation and the fundamental shift needed in consumer behavior.”

Photo at top: The aviation industry is growing in Europe, and with that growth comes an expected rise in carbon emissions. (Image courtesy of SpencerWing/Pixabay)