Written by Alexandre
Jan 28, 2022 · 8 min read time ★
How much CO2 does aviation emit?
- How much CO2 does aviation emit, and how it compares with other sectors?
- Why is aviation so scrutinized?
- Growth and other warming effects
- Aviation track record and roadmap
- The challenges of alternative sources of energy
- The electrical aircraft
- The hydrogen aircraft
- Sustainable aviation fuels
- Operational improvements
- ATM improvements
- Bringing it all together
- Solar Impulse Foundation
The stakes of global warming
Global warming is the most severe threat that our planet, our civilization, and our industry has ever faced.
In 2019, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere exceeded 410 ppm, the highest level seen in some 3 million years, before humans existed.
It is growing at an unprecedented speed, and all scientific studies confirm humans cause it.
Glaciers are melting almost worldwide; ocean levels rise, heatwaves and catastrophic meteorological events are more frequent.
All our ecosystems are at risk.
How much fuel does an aircraft burn?
This question is interesting because even though the answer is very factual, there are two ways to look at it. Both perspectives are valid and explain the big divide between environmental and aviation activists.
In short, an aircraft does burn a lot of fuel. A transatlantic flight on a modern A350 from Paris to New York will typically burn ~60,000 liters of fuel (~16,000 gallons). That’s quite a number.
But aircraft are also highly fuel-efficient: modern commercial aircraft have an average fuel consumption that can be less than 3 l per passenger per 100 km (or more than 80 mpg). This figure is comparable to the most efficient cars and is remarkable considering that passengers travel at ~800 km/h.
Figure 1: Considering the average car occupancy in Europe (1.2 to 1.6 passenger per vehicle), the vehicle on the right is more fuel-efficient per passenger x 100 km than the one on the left (and travels ~10 times as fast)
How much fuel does the industry emit,
and how does it compare with other sectors?
Rather than focusing on a single aircraft, it is much more interesting to look at aviation’s total carbon footprint.
Contrary to the general perception, aviation accounts only for 2% to 3% of the global CO2 emissions (more on other warming effects in our next episode: Why is aviation scrutinized: aviation growth and other warming effects).
It is significant and big enough to care about, especially when we must collectively reduce our CO2 emissions by 55% by 2030 to reach the Paris Agreement goal, but it’s far from being the major source of CO2 people think it is.
Even though transportation accounts for a big part of the world’s total CO2 emissions (~16-20%), electricity and heat production, manufacturing, industries, and construction account for more.
Aviation accounts for ~10% of the transportation sector’s GHG emissions, and 80% of the sector’s increase since
1970 has come from road vehicles.
Are there substitutes for aviation?
Environmental groups sometimes target aviation because some consider it as non-essential or that it could be substituted by other (cleaner) means of transportation.
Non-essential? That’s a very questionable point of view. To quote Guillaume Faury, Airbus CEO, “Aviation connects and unites people, culture, business. It makes international trade possible and acts as a vector of development, education, and economic growth.” Is fashion that arguably accounts for 8% of CO2 emissions more essential? Free to everyone to meditate!
Substitution by cleaner means of transportation? Everybody would agree, but only 10% of the 55,000 air routes can be substituted by train.
If we want to continue to enjoy air transport benefits, it’s clear that the whole industry must work on decarbonizing aviation.
What’s up in the next episode?
The next episode of this series is entitled “Why is aviation so scrutinized? Growth and other global warming effects« .
It will address the following topics:
- Aviation growth and the responsibility that comes with it
- CO2 is not the whole story: the impact of other aviation greenhouse gases on global warming
- Scientific uncertainty on aviation emissions
- A zoom on contrails
-  CO2 Concentrations Hit Highest Levels in 3 Million Years
-  Cut Global Emissions by 7.6 Percent Every Year for Next Decade to Meet 1.5°C Paris Target – UN Report
-  Size of aircraft fleets by region worldwide in 2019 and 2040 and Global Commercial Aircraft Fleet to Grow to more than 35,000
-  Number of passenger cars and commercial vehicles in use worldwide from 2006 to 2015 in(1,000 units)
-  Number of ships in the world merchant fleet as of January 1, 2021, by type
-  Guillaume Faury : pourquoi il faut soutenir le transport aérien
-  Fashion industry’s carbon impact bigger than airline industry’s
-  Malgré le Covid, le bel avenir du transport aérien
Want to learn more?
Discover the other articles of this mini-series:
The hydrogen aircraft This mini-series of small articles will present you successively: How much CO2 does aviation emit, and how it compares with other sectors? Why is aviation so scrutinized? Growth and other warming effects Aviation track record and roadmap...
Aviation track record and roadmap This mini-series of small articles will present you successively: How much CO2 does aviation emit, and how it compares with other sectors? Why is aviation so scrutinized? Growth and other warming effects Aviation track record...
[Decarbonizing aviation: mission possible] – Episode 4: The challenge of alternative sources of energy
This mini-series of small articles will present you successively: How much CO2 does aviation emit, and how it compares with other sectors? Why is aviation so scrutinized? Growth and other warming effects Aviation track record and roadmap The challenges of alternative...
Written by Alexandre
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