Aviation and the Global Atmosphere

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1. Introduction

This report assesses the effects of aircraft on climate and atmospheric ozone and is the first IPCC report for a specific industrial subsector. It was prepared by IPCC in collaboration with the Scientific Assessment Panel to the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, in response to a request by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) 1 because of the potential impact of aviation emissions. These are the predominant anthropogenic emissions deposited directly into the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere.

Aviation has experienced rapid expansion as the world economy has grown. Passenger traffic (expressed as revenue passenger-kilometers 2 ) has grown since 1960 at nearly 9% per year, 2.4 times the average Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth rate. Freight traffic, approximately 80% of which is carried by passenger airplanes, has also grown over the same time period. The rate of growth of passenger traffic has slowed to about 5% in 1997 as the industry is maturing. Total aviation emissions have increased, because increased demand for air transport has outpaced the reductions in specific emissions 3 from the continuing improvements in technology and operational procedures. Passenger traffic, assuming unconstrained demand, is projected to grow at rates in excess of GDP for the period assessed in this report.

The effects of current aviation and of a range of unconstrained growth projections for aviation (which include passenger, freight, and military) are examined in this report, including the possible effects of a fleet of second generation, commercial supersonic aircraft. The report also describes current aircraft technology, operating procedures, and options for mitigating aviation's future impact on the global atmosphere. The report does not consider the local environmental effects of aircraft engine emissions or any of the indirect environmental effects of aviation operations such as energy usage by ground transportation at airports.

2. How Do Aircraft Affect Climate and Ozone?

Aircraft emit gases and particles directly into the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere where they have an impact on atmospheric composition. These gases and particles alter the concentration of atmospheric greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide CO2), ozone (O3), and methane (CH4); trigger formation of condensation trails (contrails); and may increase cirrus cloudiness-all of which contribute to climate change (see Box 1).

The principal emissions of aircraft include the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide and water vapor (H2O). Other major emissions are nitric oxide (NO) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) (which together are termed NOx), sulfur oxides (SOxO), and soot. The total amount of aviation fuel burned, as well as the total emissions of carbon dioxide, NOx, and water vapor by aircraft, are well known relative to other parameters important to this assessment. The climate impacts of the gases and particles emitted and formed as a result of aviation are more difficult to quantify than the emissions; however, they can be compared to each other and to climate effects from other sectors by using the concept of radiative forcing. 4 Because carbon dioxide has a long atmospheric residence time (100 years) and so becomes well mixed throughout the atmosphere, the effects of its emissions from aircraft are indistinguishable from the same quantity of carbon dioxide emitted by any other source. The other gases (e.g., NOx, SOxO, water vapor) and particles have shorter atmospheric residence times and remain concentrated near flight routes, mainly in the northern mid-latitudes. These emissions can lead to radiative forcing that is regionally located near the flight routes for some components (e.g., ozone and contrails) in contrast to emissions that are globally mixed (e.g., carbon dioxide and methane).

The global mean climate change is reasonably well represented by the global average radiative forcing, for example, when evaluating the contributions of aviation to the rise in globally averaged temperature or sea level. However, because some of aviation's key contributions to radiative forcing are located mainly in the northern mid-latitudes, the regional climate response may differ from that derived from a global mean radiative forcing. The impact of aircraft on regional climate could be important, but has not been assessed in this report.

Ozone is a greenhouse gas. It also shields the surface of the earth from harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation, and is a common air pollutant. Aircraft-emitted NOx participates in ozone chemistry. Subsonic aircraft fly in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere (at altitudes of about 9 to 13 km), whereas supersonic aircraft cruise several kilometers higher (at about 17 to 20 km) in the stratosphere. Ozone in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere is expected to increase in response to NOx increases and methane is expected to decrease. At higher altitudes, increases in NOx lead to decreases in the stratospheric ozone layer. Ozone precursor (NOx) residence times in these regions increase with altitude, and hence perturbations to ozone by aircraft depend on the altitude of NOx injection and vary from regional in scale in the troposphere to global in scale in the stratosphere.

Water vapor, SOxO (which forms sulfate particles), and soot 5 play both direct and indirect roles in climate change and ozone chemistry.

Box 1. The Science of Climate Change

Some of the main conclusions of the Summary for Policymakers of Working Group I of the IPCC Second Assessment Report, published in 1995, which concerns the effects of all anthropogenic emissions on climate change, follow:

  • Increases in greenhouse gas concentrations since pre-industrial times (i.e., since about 1750) have led to a positive radiative forcing of climate, tending to warm the surface of the Earth and produce other changes of climate.
  • The atmospheric concentrations of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide (N2O), among others, have grown significantly: by about 30, 145, and 15%, respectively (values for 1992). These trends can be attributed largely to human activities, mostly fossil fuel use, land-use change, and agriculture.
  • Many greenhouse gases remain in the atmosphere for a long time (for carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, many decades to centuries). As a result of this, if carbon dioxide emissions were maintained at near current (1994) levels, they would lead to a nearly constant rate of increase in atmospheric concentrations for at least two centuries, reaching about 500 ppmv (approximately twice the pre-industrial concentration of 280 ppmv) by the end of the 21st century.
  • Tropospheric aerosols resulting from combustion of fossil fuels, biomass burning, and other sources have led to a negative radiative forcing, which, while focused in particular regions and subcontinental areas, can have continental to hemispheric effects on climate patterns. In contrast to the long-lived greenhouse gases, anthropogenic aerosols are very short-lived in the atmosphere; hence, their radiative forcing adjusts rapidly to increases or decreases in emissions.
  • Our ability from the observed climate record to quantify the human influence on global climate is currently limited because the expected signal is still emerging from the noise of natural variability, and because there are uncertainties in key factors. These include the magnitude and patterns of long-term natural variability and the time-evolving pattern of forcing by, and response to, changes in concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols, and land-surface changes. Nevertheless, the balance of evidence suggests that there is a discernible human influence on global climate.
  • The IPCC has developed a range of scenarios, IS92a-f, for future greenhouse gas and aerosol precursor emissions based on assumptions concerning population and economic growth, land use, technological changes, energy availability, and fuel mix during the period 1990 to 2100. Through understanding of the global carbon cycle and of atmospheric chemistry, these emissions can be used to project atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases and aerosols and the perturbation of natural radiative forcing. Climate models can then be used to develop projections of future climate.
  • Estimates of the rise in global average surface air temperature by 2100 relative to 1990 for the IS92 scenarios range from 1 to 3.5C. In all cases the average rate of warming would probably be greater than any seen in the last 10,000 years. Regional temperature changes could differ substantially from the global mean and the actual annual to decadal changes would include considerable natural variability. A general warming is expected to lead to an increase in the occurrence of extremely hot days and a decrease in the occurrence of extremely cold days.
  • Average sea level is expected to rise as a result of thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of glaciers and ice-sheets. Estimates of the sea level rise by 2100 relative to 1990 for the IS92 scenarios range from 15 to 95 cm.
  • Warmer temperatures will lead to a more vigorous hydrological cycle; this translates into prospects for more severe droughts and/or floods in some places and less severe droughts and/or floods in other places. Several models indicate an increase in precipitation intensity, suggesting a possibility for more extreme rainfall events.

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