Grounded – climate and aviation

  • Written by  Marco Magrini
  • Published in Climate
A commercial aircraft on approach into land at Phoenix, Arizona A commercial aircraft on approach into land at Phoenix, Arizona Tim Roberts
26 Aug
2017
Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This month, Marco Magrini looks at the future of civil aviation

Early this summer, Phoenix’s international airport cancelled several dozen flights as the thermometer in Arizona was heading for a scorching 48°C. Dramatically, at that temperature air molecules may not be dense enough to provide the indispensable lift for aircraft to take off.

Last year was the hottest on record – surpassing 2015, which surpassed 2014 – and hints are already suggesting that 2017 will rise even further. With such a progression towards a warmer climate, how often will air traffic be disrupted? Can a fast-growing airline industry cope with the perils of a thinner atmosphere?

It is not a trivial question. Civil and commercial aviation are a crucial element of economic growth. According to the World Bank, around 15.5 billion tons of goods were shipped in 1970, up to 195 billion in 2015. There were 310 million passengers in 1970, up to 3.4 billion two years ago. The International Air Transport Association expects 7.2 billion passengers in 2035, yet another doubling in 20 years.

Civil aviation alone is responsible for two per cent of global CO2 emissions. However, if we add the nitrogen oxides, the water vapour and the particulates it emits, its influence on climate’s arithmetic is considered to be closer to four per cent. Major airlines have long been reluctant to swear an oath on emission reduction. They successfully rebelled when, in 2012, the European Commission tried to include aviation in its Emission Trading Scheme. During the painstaking negotiations that brought about the Paris Accord, just mentioning aviation was taboo.

Luckily though, last November the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) finally acquiesced to a carbon offsetting scheme. The agreement doesn’t urge the industry to innovate, but it may be a good starting point. A few airlines are paving the way (Virgin Atlantic cut its emissions per mile travelled by 22 per cent in ten years), even though the vast majority still see their business as inescapably linked to fossil fuels.

The US is now retreating from the Paris Accord. But the aviation agreement, in ICAO’s own words, ‘complements’ Paris. So no one really knows its fate. The voluntary period is set to begin in 2021. Were the American carriers to step away from it, it will never really take off. Just like their airplanes on a future, sweltering summer day.

This was published in the September 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.

Share this story...

Submit to FacebookSubmit to Google PlusSubmit to Twitter

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

Subscribe Today

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth UniversityUniversity of GreenwichThe University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Air That We Breathe
    Cities the world over are struggling to improve air quality as scandals surrounding diesel car emissions come to light and the huge health costs of po...
    Diabetes: The World at Risk
    Diabetes is often thought of as a ‘western’ problem, one linked to the developed world’s overindulgence in fatty foods and chronic lack of physi...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    When the wind blows
    With 1,200 wind turbines due to be built in the UK this year, Mark Rowe explores the continuing controversy surrounding wind power and discusses the e...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - follow Geographical

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in NATURE...

Geophoto

November is a dark, quiet month, but it also marks…

Energy

Could human waste one day be fuelling our homes and…

Geophoto

Every year, the LPOTY awards celebrate the best in Britain’s…

Climate

At the 23rd Convention of the Parties (COP) climate change…

Oceans

Knowing where past coral reefs existed is a crucial component…

Oceans

Numerous low-lying Pacific islands have disappeared under rising seas

Oceans

In this exclusive film for Geographical, see how an unusually…

Climate

Marco Magrini considers why the recent devastation caused by hurricanes…

Geophoto

Country borders are some of the most controlled environments on…

Wildlife

Nature reserves and protected areas in Germany have lost 76…

Oceans

An investigation into shark fins and ray gills sold in…

Climate

Geographical’s regular look at the world of climate change. This…

Wildlife

The rapid spread of Asian hornets is likely to make…

Energy

Europe provides more than €112billion (£97billion) in subsidies to fossil…

Oceans

A study of various fish populations has found dramatic reductions…

Geophoto

The seasonal changes of September promise much photographic potential for…

Oceans

Shipping traffic can increase lightning strikes, according to a pioneering…

Polar

New documentary travels to remote Antarctica to unpack the complex…

Oceans

The deaths of these majestic creatures had remained an unsolved…

Wildlife

Over a two-year period, a new species of plant or…