Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

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.

Related items

Geographical Week

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

LATEST HEADLINES

Subscribe to Geographical!

University of Winchester

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The 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 Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    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...
    Mexico City: boom town
    Twenty years ago, Mexico City was considered the ultimate urban disaster. But, recent political and economic reforms have transformed it into a hub of...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

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

With the recent Saddleworth Moor fire, it can be easy…

Wildlife

Whale sharks have been found to not travel far from…

Wildlife

The Lone Star tick is spreading across North America, carrying…

Tectonics

Earlier this week, Indonesia was struck by a series of…

Energy

Efforts to reduce the energy drain of the internet are…

Energy

Coal’s rising popularity among climate-apathetic leaders is a worrying trend,…

Climate

Sharing the ideas of climate justice with a little humour…

Polar

Rising bedrock under the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could prevent…

Oceans

Officially declared the world’s ‘most overfished sea’, the Mediterranean is…

Wildlife

An interview with biologist Chris D Thomas, author of ‘Inheritors…

Geophoto

Some may see using the 50mm lens as a regressive…

Oceans

With the war against plastic gaining publicity and popularity, one…

Wildlife

India’s booming domestic dog population is attacking some of the…

Energy

Soaring sales of air conditioning units over the next thirty…

Climate

Well-meaning promises and actions don't always have the best outcomes.…

Geophoto

With the days at their longest and more light in…

Oceans

Tourism might be an economic pillar for many countries surrounding…

Wildlife

Brain sizes directly shown to correlate to survival rates among…

Wildlife

Celebrated author Professor Tim Birkhead provides a fascinating insight into…

Oceans

The world’s most biodiverse seagrass region – Indonesia’s Coral Triangle…