Airplanes: How much do their fuels pollute?

With the debate on climate change and its causes, the contribution of air transport has been put in the spotlight. We fly more than ever and, for this reason, we are talking about airplane pollution .

We tell you how much airplanes pollute when they fly, what their contribution to climate change is and if anything can be done, along with other interesting facts on the subject.

How much do airplanes contribute to climate change?

Air pollution is currently estimated at 1.3% of the total man’s contribution to global warming.

It doesn’t seem like much, especially when we compare it with the emissions from agriculture, livestock or power generation. However, there is a major underlying problem.

While most sectors are cutting emissions and investing in it, aviation is going in the opposite direction and is trending upwards . This will make air transport the most important source of carbon dioxide emissions in about 30 years.

Some other facts about it are:

A forecast of the generation of 43 gigatons of greenhouse gases until 2050 .
That implies consuming almost 5% of the “budget carbon” until then (that is, of which we could emit at most).
In the United States, the airplane emits 11% of the total CO 2 of the transport sector and represents 3% of the total emissions of the country.
The data from the aviation sector in the United States is important because this country is responsible for almost half of CO 2 emissions in the world for this reason .
In addition to CO 2 , airplanes also pollute with Nitrogen Oxide (NOx), which creates ozone, another important greenhouse gas. As the emission of NOx from airplanes is at high altitudes, the concentration of ozone that is produced is greater than if it were done from the ground, aggravating everything.

Why is aircraft pollution a growing and difficult problem to solve?

Although it is a complex issue with many reasons, there are two fundamental challenges for which it is very difficult right now to reduce pollution from airplanes.

On the one hand, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has raised the difficulty of cutting emissions due to the increasing demand for flights .

Driven by the increase in the standard of living in some Asian countries, such as India or China, it is not feasible to cut air traffic, quite the contrary.

Similarly, technologically speaking, the mass electrification of air transport is very complicated . Planes use fossil fuel and right now, especially on long flights with heavy passenger loads, no other way is possible.

Although there are advances in regard to electrification to reduce pollution from aircraft, these are scarce and for private and small aircraft, with routes of less than 1,500 km.

This is a problem because, according to the data, 80% of air transport emissions are due precisely to large passenger flights with distances greater than 1,500 km.

That is why, in the words of Paul Eremenko, CTO of United Technologies :

“Unless there is something radical, a paradigm shift in energy storage that is not yet invented, we are going to have to rely [for planes] on fossil fuels in the near future.”

What is being done right now to alleviate this contamination from airplanes?

Due to the difficulty of cutting flights or finding an alternative fuel, the aviation industry, in order to comply with the Paris agreements, is trying to offset the carbon dioxide it produces through reforestation projects .

The objective of these projects is that the new plants are capable of absorbing a greater amount of carbon dioxide.

Austrian Airlines, Easyjet or Virgin Atlantic are three companies that have carried out projects of this type. Other airlines , such as Delta, United or Jetblue in the United States, allow you to buy tickets with an extra to alleviate the carbon footprint in this way.

However, some analysts, such as Andrew Murphy of Transport & Environment , an organization based in Brussels, believe that these projects are not doing much good. The alternative? New fuels and abandon the subsidies to the current ones, there is no other way.

What can we personally do to reduce air pollution?

The truth is that it is a complicated matter, and the main thing we can do is to fly less and choose more sustainable transport , such as the train.

If we have to fly, better not do it in first class . Some studies have calculated that the emissions from flying business class can be up to three times higher.

Similarly, some airlines are using biofuels with less carbon footprint, which would be an incentive to choose them if we have the option. But the reality is that, at the moment, there is no simple solution and pollution from airplanes is one of the main ecological challenges for the future.

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