Aviation and the Global Atmosphere

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6. What are the Options to Reduce Emissions and Impacts?

There is a range of options to reduce the impact of aviation emissions, including changes in aircraft and engine technology, fuel, operational practices, and regulatory and economic measures. These could be implemented either singly or in combination by the public and/or private sector. Substantial aircraft and engine technology advances and the air traffic management improvements described in this report are already incorporated in the aircraft emissions scenarios used for climate change calculations. Other operational measures, which have the potential to reduce emissions, and alternative fuels were not assumed in the scenarios. Further technology advances have the potential to provide additional fuel and emissions reductions. In practice, some of the improvements are expected to take place for commercial reasons. The timing and scope of regulatory, economic, and other options may affect the introduction of improvements and may affect demand for air transport. Mitigation options for water vapor and cloudiness have not been fully addressed.

Safety of operation, operational and environmental performance, and costs are dominant considerations for the aviation industry when assessing any new aircraft purchase or potential engineering or operational changes. The typical life expectancy of an aircraft is 25 to 35 years. These factors have to be taken into account when assessing the rate at which technology advances and policy options related to technology can reduce aviation emissions.

6.1. Aircraft and Engine Technology Options

Technology advances have substantially reduced most emissions per passenger-km. However, there is potential for further improvements. Any technological change may involve a balance among a range of environmental impacts.

Subsonic aircraft being produced today are about 70% more fuel efficient per passenger-km than 40 years ago. The majority of this gain has been achieved through engine improvements and the remainder from airframe design improvement. A 20% improvement in fuel efficiency is projected by 2015 and a 40 to 50% improvement by 2050 relative to aircraft produced today. The 2050 scenarios developed for this report already incorporate these fuel efficiency gains when estimating fuel use and emissions. Engine efficiency improvements reduce the specific fuel consumption and most types of emissions; however, contrails may increase and, without advances in combuster technology, NOx emissions may also increase.

Future engine and airframe design involves a complex decision-making process and a balance of considerations among many factors (e.g., carbon dioxide emissions, NOx emissions at ground level, NOx emissions at altitude, water vapor emissions, contrail/cirrus production, and noise). These aspects have not been adequately characterized or quantified in this report.

Internationally, substantial engine research programs are in progress, with goals to reduce Landing and Take-off cycle (LTO) emissions of NOx by up to 70% from today's regulatory standards, while also improving engine fuel consumption by 8 to 10%, over the most recently produced engines, by about 2010. Reduction of NOx emissions would also be achieved at cruise altitude, though not necessarily by the same proportion as for LTO. Assuming that the goals can be achieved, the transfer of this technology to significant numbers of newly produced aircraft will take longer-typically a decade. Research programs addressing NOx emissions from supersonic aircraft are also in progress.

6.2. Fuel Options

There would not appear to be any practical alternatives to kerosene-based fuels for commercial jet aircraft for the next several decades. Reducing sulfur content of kerosene will reduce SOxO emissions and sulfate particle formation.

Jet aircraft require fuel with a high energy density, especially for long-haul flights. Other fuel options, such as hydrogen, may be viable in the long term, but would require new aircraft designs and new infrastructure for supply. Hydrogen fuel would eliminate emissions of carbon dioxide from aircraft, but would increase those of water vapor. The overall environmental impacts and the environmental sustainability of the production and use of hydrogen or any other alternative fuels have not been determined.

The formation of sulfate particles from aircraft emissions, which depends on engine and plume characteristics, is reduced as fuel sulfur content decreases. While technology exists to remove virtually all sulfur from fuel, its removal results in a reduction in lubricity.

6.3. Operational Options

Improvements in air traffic management (ATM) and other operational procedures could reduce aviation fuel burn by between 8 and 18%. The large majority (6 to 12%) of these reductions comes from ATM improvements which it is anticipated will be fully implemented in the next 20 years. All engine emissions will be reduced as a consequence. In all aviation emission scenarios considered in this report the reductions from ATM improvements have already been taken into account. The rate of introduction of improved ATM will depend on the implementation of the essential institutional arrangements at an international level.  

Air traffic management systems are used for the guidance, separation, coordination, and control of aircraft movements. Existing national and international air traffic management systems have limitations which result, for example, in holding (aircraft flying in a fixed pattern waiting for permission to land), inefficient routings, and sub-optimal flight profiles. These limitations result in excess fuel burn and consequently excess emissions.

For the current aircraft fleet and operations, addressing the above-mentioned limitations in air traffic management systems could reduce fuel burned in the range of 6 to 12%. It is anticipated that the improvement needed for these fuel burn reductions will be fully implemented in the next 20 years, provided that the necessary institutional and regulatory arrangements have been put in place in time. The scenarios developed in this report assume the timely implementation of these ATM improvements, when estimating fuel use.

Other operational measures to reduce the amount of fuel burned per passenger-km include increasing load factors (carrying more passengers or freight on a given aircraft), eliminating non-essential weight, optimizing aircraft speed, limiting the use of auxiliary power (e.g., for heating, ventilation), and reducing taxiing. The potential improvements in these operational measures could reduce fuel burned, and emissions, in the range 2 to 6%.

Improved operational efficiency may result in attracting additional air traffic, although no studies providing evidence on the existence of this effect have been identified.

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