Environmental impact of aviation and aerospace

Aviation makes a positive difference to the lives of millions of people, enabling us to make new connections with people and businesses wherever they are, move goods quickly and easily, and allowing travellers to experience and value different cultures.

Aerospace was founded on innovation and continues to be characterised by creativity and ingenuity as we rise to the climate challenge. Today’s aircraft are far more fuel efficient and lower in emissions than previous generations thanks to the range of technology improvements the aerospace industry has made over the years. The urgency of climate change demands that we accelerate the work we are doing to ensure cleaner more sustainable flight; it gives us a shared sense of purpose as we work towards this cleaner future.

Aviation & Climate Change

Aviation contributes around 3-5% of the total warming effect that causes climate change and in 2019 it contributed around 2% to global human-made CO2 emissions.

Our members support the urgent and immediate call to action to develop radically improved technologies, flight operations and alternatives to fossil fuels to enable an environmentally sustainable future for aviation.

ADS has recently reported on the effects of aviation on climate change and the measures being undertaken to mitigate these effects. Our Aviation & Climate Change report addresses three fundamental questions.

  • How does aviation affect the climate?
  • What commitments are there to reduce climate impact?
  • What are the approaches to reduce future impact?

Based on the latest scientific understanding and current industrial strategies, the report is fact-driven and focuses specifically on emissions from the operation of civil aircraft – or so called “tail-pipe” emissions. ADS members can download the report in the members area and view it here.

How does aviation affect the climate?

Aviation, like any industry that uses fossil fuels, produces waste products including CO2 – a greenhouse gas that’s warming effect on the climate is well understood.

Research is also building an increasing understanding of the warming effects of “non-CO2” emissions from aviation, such as water vapour that can form into contrails.

Current estimates suggest that non-CO2 effects could be up to twice as harmful as CO2, but significant uncertainty remains while research is ongoing. These emissions disrupt the natural radiation cycle, results in more absorption of the sun’s energy, which increases the planet’s surface temperature – global warming. Current estimates are that aviation accounts of around 2% of anthropogenic CO2 emission, but just under 5% of overall radiative forcing.

What commitments are there to reduce climate impact?

Aviation is the first sector in the world to have set globally binding CO2 emissions targets, implemented by an international mechanism called CORSIA.

Based on the current understanding of the rate of climate change, the industry knows that these targets do not go far enough, and a new target is being developed for 2022. Meanwhile, many countries, including the UK, have already committed to “net-zero 2050” – the target widely regarded as the enabler to keep global temperature rises to below 2 degrees Celsius – while industries have likewise set themselves ambitious emissions goals. UK Aviation is committed to net-zero CO2 by 2050, and many airlines around the world have also committed to this.

Over the next few years, it is expected that many countries and sectors will commit to similar targets, to reach a truly worldwide approach that global sectors like aviation require.

What are the approaches to reduce future impact?

Several piece of analyses show that aviation growth can be compatible with climate change mitigation goals.

Aerospace technology improvements and breakthroughs are one of the main levers, alongside the use of sustainable aviation fuels and operational improvements, to reduce the sector’s emissions.

Any emissions still left in the sector will be mitigated by market based measures as a means to reach net-zero, with the reliance on these diminishing over time as technological solutions are developed and come into widespread use.

In the UK, Aerospace companies are investing in technological solutions, supported by Government investment through the Aerospace Technology Institute, which will not only substantially reduce emissions, but will make the UK a world leader in sustainable aviation solutions. Now is the time to accelerate these investments to enable the benefits of aviation to continue in a way that is sustainable for the planet.