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

Subscribe and Save!

geo line break v3

Free eBooks - Geographical Newsletter

Sign up for our weekly newsletter today and get a FREE eBook collection!

geo line break v3

University of Winchester

geo line break v3

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Derby

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

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

Winning entries include meerkats, zebra sharks and courting nudibranches

Oceans

The UN’s World Ocean Day is a day to celebrate…

Nature

Breathe easier this World Environment day with this collection of…

Climate

A 50-year look at the activity of aphids, moths, butterflies…

Geophoto

The British Isles are packed with natural landmarks that serve…

Geophoto

The prestigious photography awards to go on display in some…

Tectonics

The discovery of a slow-motion earthquake near Istanbul, which took…

Oceans

The 2014 to 2016 marine heatwave, which took place off…

Climate

Marco Magrini discovers that hydrogen is back, but hopefully not…

Wildlife

 A ten-year analysis of chimpanzees has revealed that the presence…

Wildlife

The return of the pine marten to UK forests has…

Energy

A project in Orkney is converting excess wind energy into…

Geophoto

Mountains provide a dramatic sight at the best of times,…

Wildlife

A surge in reports of dead hares has resulted in…

Oceans

Four scientists have banded together to make the case against the farming of octopuses, arguing…

Climate

As planetary oil consumption hits the 100-million-barrel mark Marco Magrini…

Oceans

A ship that ran aground early in February has been…

Wildlife

Two whale populations on either side of the African continent…

Geophoto

March traditionally heralds the beginning of spring, a time of…

Wildlife

An innovative project to utilise Laos’ elephant experts in service…