After a decade of little growth, European aviation emissions expected to grow significantly by 2035

After a decade of little growth, European aviation emissions expected to grow significantly by 2035 | Violeta Bulc

Fri 5 Feb 2016 – After a ten-year period of largely static growth in CO2 emissions from European aviation, forecasts suggest future technological and operational gains will not be enough to prevent a significant rise in emissions over the next 20 years as a result of an expected 45% increase in the number of flights. According to the first European Aviation Environmental Report published by the European Commission, aviation CO2 emissions increased from 144 million tonnes (Mt) in 2005 to 151 Mt in 2014, a rise of just 5%, as a result of technological and ATM improvements, fleet renewal and the 2008 economic downturn. Jet aircraft noise levels have generally reduced by about 4 decibels per decade but progress has recently slowed to about 2 decibels per decade. However, the report finds noise energy and emissions will grow slower than passenger kilometres out to 2035.


In 2012, aviation represented 13% of all EU transport CO2 emissions and 3% of the EU total output, and also made up 22% of global aviation CO2 emissions. Similarly, the sector now comprises 14% of all EU transport NOx emissions and 7% of the EU overall total. In absolute terms, NOx emissions have doubled since 1990 as the number of flights has increased by 80%, and their relative share has quadrupled as other economic sectors have achieved significant reductions.


Announcing the report, EU Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc said: “Aviation brings significant economic and social benefits to Europe, but also has an impact on the environment. The Aviation Strategy we adopted in December recognises the future competitiveness of air transport goes hand in hand with its sustainability. This report will be instrumental to frame future policy.”


The number of European flights in 2014 was lower than the peak in 2008, with the economic downturn leading to 2009 seeing the largest annual fall in flights of recent decades. As of 2014, the number of scheduled and charter passenger flights had recovered to 2005 levels. However, passenger numbers have recovered much more quickly and the average number of passengers per flight has increased from 87 in 2005 to 113 in 2014.


This is in part due to a trend towards longer flights and larger aircraft, and coupled with higher load factors has led to a reduction in fuel burn per passenger kilometre flown by 19% between 2005 and 2014. By 2035, the reduction over 2005 levels could amount to between 43% and 46%, depending on technology advances. However, absolute CO2 emissions are forecast to grow during the same 2005-2035 period by between 44% and 53% to 207-219 Mt, with similar percentage increases for NOx. Between 1990 and 2005, EU and EFTA data reported to the UNFCCC showed aircraft CO2 emissions rose from 88 Mt to 156 Mt, an increase of 77%.


Aircraft emissions of unburnt hydrocarbons, CO and non-volatile particulates (PM) decreased between 2005 and 2014, while full-flight emissions of volatile PM increased by 7%. However, the total emissions of each of these pollutants are expected to increase over the next 20 years.


One outcome of the slower growth has seen the mean aircraft age of the European aircraft fleet creep up from 9.6 years in 2005 to 10.3 years in 2014. Only 2009 and 2010 saw reductions, driven by a rapid expansion of the low-cost airlines, which tend to have younger than average aircraft, and the retirement of older, more inefficient aircraft by the traditional scheduled operators responding to higher fuel prices and falling demand. As low-cost carrier growth then slowed and with limited fleet renewal elsewhere, the fleet began to age again.


The report reveals that the reduced scope of the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS), which currently limits aviation coverage to intra-European flights while a global solution market-based solution is negotiated at ICAO, is likely to contribute around 65 Mt of aviation CO2 emission reductions between 2013 and 2016, an average of 16 Mt per year.


Noting the ICAO discussions, Bulc said that during the year ahead, “the EU will reach out to its partners to take global and ambitious steps” on measures to reduce emissions from aviation.


The report includes a downbeat current assessment of sustainable alternative fuels, which it says that although they are still in infancy and will likely play a large role in reducing aviation emissions and improving local air quality in the coming decades, there has been a “very slow” uptake. It sees regular production of such fuels to be very limited in the next few years and the European Advanced Biofuels Flightpath target of 2.06 Mt (600 million gallons) of sustainable biofuels for civil aviation annually by 2020 is unlikely to be achieved. It blames competition in demand for these fuels from other transport sectors, where incentives are already in place, access to low-cost feedstocks and the high capital investment requirement.


On aircraft noise, the report says about 2.5 million people were exposed to significant noise at 45 major European airports in 2014, and this is forecast to increase by 15% between 2014 and 2035. While acknowledging that this has led to some public protests and political pressure at local and national levels, it says a regulatory framework and airport initiatives have been put in place to deal with the issue. However, it expects by 2035, in the absence of continuing efforts, some 20 major European airports to face significant congestion and related environmental impacts.


Finally, a warning is issued to the European aviation sector to expect operational impacts as a result of climate change, with the potential for more frequent and more adverse weather disruption, as well as sea-level rise.


The report was prepared by the Commission in collaboration with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the European Environment Agency and Eurocontrol.




European Aviation Environment Report 2016 (pdf)



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