Can aviation be sustainable?

The UK has the largest aviation network in Europe, contributing more than £22 billion to the UK economy and directly providing hundreds of thousands of highly-skilled jobs. It ensures the links that enable people to work, to learn and to explore the world.

In 2016 over 250 million passengers travelled on an aircraft in the UK, and further growth is expected over the coming years. However we recognise that our activities impact the global and local environment. If we are to grow, we must do so in a sustainable way.

Sustainable Aviation is a coalition of airlines, airports, aerospace manufacturers and air navigation service providers working together to achieve sustainable growth, reduce noise and CO2 emissions, improve air quality and secure the benefits to society that aviation undoubtedly brings.

At the end of 2017 we launched a report outlining the progress we have made over the previous two years. It showed that we have successfully disconnected UK aviation’s rate of growth from that of carbon emissions and are on track to delivering our target to halve net CO2 emissions by 2050, compared with 2005 levels.

How will we achieve our targets?

Technology will play a central role. The UK is a world leader in aerospace manufacturing, and since 2005 470 new, more fuel-efficient aircraft entered service with UK airlines, saving at least 20 million tonnes of CO2. We have seen a further 2% increase in aircraft fuel efficiency since 2014. UK aerospace manufacturers are continuously investing in the cutting-edge technology for the even more fuel-efficient aircraft of the future.

Sustainable aviation fuels also have the potential to play an important role in achieving the UK’s ambition to reduce carbon emissions from transport. Our road map identifies the potential for a 24% reduction in aviation carbon dioxide emissions, the generation of £265 million in economic value and the creation of 4,400 jobs in the UK over the next 15 years, with between five and 12 operational plants producing sustainable fuels by 2030. Many of these initial sustainable fuels can be made from waste products, including non-recyclable household waste, offering the potential to address two issues at once.

Our airspace is little changed since it was designed in the 1960s. It does not allow us to maximise the innovative technology that is on today’s aircraft. Since 2014, 90,095 tonnes of CO2 have been saved through incremental changes to the structure of UK airspace. However, a wider, more fundamental redesign is needed to enable a reduction of up to 14% in CO2 emissions.

Market based measures will also support the delivery of our target. Between 2012 and 2015, six million tonnes of CO2 emissions reductions were made by UK airlines through the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). Our members have also long been advocates of an industry-wide carbon deal for aviation, and fully support the new carbon offsetting scheme for international aviation (CORSIA) agreement reached by the UN body, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO). It means that from 2021, airlines will be required to pay to reduce CO2 emissions through qualifying offset projects around the world, capping net CO2 emissions at 2020 levels.

Our vision for the future

Over the course of this year we will set out our vision for aviation in 2050 and beyond, looking at the innovative and emerging technologies on the horizon which could have a potentially transformative effect on our industry, including electric-hybrid aircraft.

Ours is an innovative and vibrant industry, and we continue to explore new thoughts and ideas from both within and outside.

We can’t achieve sustainable growth without the support and action of government. The industrial strategy and aviation strategy are good opportunities for government to take a proactive approach in this area. We urge the government to be ambitious and positive about what the industry can achieve, and how it can continue to support our economy.

Dr Andy Jefferson is Programme Director at Sustainable Aviation

The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue

Turbulence ahead: the environmental impacts of aviation

Aviation undoubtedly poses a number of threats to our environment. These are, most notably, air pollution, noise pollution, and climate change. And yet the number of flights continues to increase along with passenger demand, as the government considers expanding further the UK’s aviation capacity.

Some of these problems can be mitigated through policy, and progress can be seen already. But others are harder to resolve. This blog will examine the environmental impacts of aviation, the effectiveness of government action so far, and options for further mitigation. 

Environmental impact 

First, aviation produces harmful air pollution that damages public health, including nitrogen dioxide, nitrous oxide, and particulate matter. A 2015 study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) revealed that ozone and particulate matter from aircraft contributed to 16,000 premature deaths annually around the world, with an estimated cost of $21 billion a year. A 2012 paper, also from MIT, found that emissions from UK airports were responsible for 110 early deaths each year.

Second, aviation generates high levels of noise pollution. As well as impairing the quality of life of local residents, noise can also cause health impacts. In a 2015 report, researchers from Queen Mary University found aviation noise had a serious impact on cardiovascular health, psychological well-being, and children’s cognition and learning.

Finally, aviation is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to climate change, making up 5.9% of the UK’s total emissions. The Committee on Climate Change (CCC) noted in their recent report that between 2009 and 2014 aviation emissions have been broadly flat. The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a UN body, estimates that globally aviation accounts for around 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions, a small but significant portion.

Effectiveness of government action so far

The government’s air quality plan, published in December 2015, focuses mostly on reducing air pollution from road transportation. However, it notes that nitrogen dioxide emissions from aircraft will gradually decrease as the ICAO tightens the regulations that cap emissions during landing, taxi, and take-off. There is also huge potential for innovation in manufacturing to continue developing more efficient engines that emit fewer toxicants into the air.

Changes to the design of aircraft are also able to mitigate noise. From 2017, new ICAO-enforced regulations will require large civil aircraft engines to be at least seven decibels quieter than current designs, with similar regulations for smaller aircrafts to follow in 2020.

Carbon emissions from aviation have been reduced by greater engine efficiency. The ICAO state that engines have become 70% more efficient since the 1970s. Sustainable alternative fuels, such as biofuels (purpose-grown crops) or hydrogen, have also been developed, and have now powered 2,500 commercial flights, according to ICAO figures.

In the UK, the CCC’s analysis suggests that the most cost-effective route to fulfilling the UK’s obligations under the Climate Change Act requires a contribution from aviation. They say that aviation emissions should be no higher in 2050 than they were in 2005. The projected improvements in fuel efficiency will allow for a 60% increase in passenger demand between 2005 and 2050.  

Options for further mitigation 

Better planning could help to mitigate the impacts of noise and air pollution, by ensuring new airports and runways are not built next to densely populated areas. Construction of new high speed rail links will reduce some of the demand for shorter, internal flights.

Further development of alternative fuels is also possible. ‘Solar Impulse’, a plane powered entirely by solar panels fixed to the aircraft, recently completed a circumnavigation of the world. But solar technology is not currently capable of powering a large, commercial plane.

In a 2009 report, Policy Exchange argued that bio-jet fuels had significant potential to replace standard kerosene jet fuel. They are an advanced biofuel that does not compete with food production and that offers greater life-cycle carbon savings than the first generation biofuels used in road transportation. Moreover, the volume of feedstocks required to meet all EU demand for jet fuel in 2050 is feasible, needing an area of land just slightly larger than Wales.

Ultimately, reducing CO2 emissions from aviation will be dependent on securing an international agreement. Without broad buy-in from the countries with big aviation sectors, there will just be ‘carbon leakage’, whereby emissions are not cut but displaced to countries with less stringent regulations. 

The ICAO is expected to agree in Autumn 2016 on a ‘market-based measure’ to cap net emissions at 2020 levels. A market-based measure allows industry to pick from a range of options for reducing emissions. These include levies, offsetting schemes, and emissions trading. However, reports from the talks this week suggest that such an agreement may only be voluntary initially, with an option for a compulsory limit five years later.  

Since 2012, the UK’s international aviation emissions have been included within the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme (ETS), which allows carbon emitters, such as airlines, to buy and sell permits for their emissions. As with many environmental regulations, the UK’s future involvement in this scheme is now in question. However, it is worth noting that all EEA countries are currently participants in the EU ETS. 


There is strong evidence of aviation’s importance to the UK economy, as it contributed £18 billion of annual economic activity and directly employed 220,000 people in 2013. Reducing demand for air travel, therefore, is likely to carry a significant economic penalty. For this reason, it is essential that a long-term, international solution to the environmental harms of aviation is found, and quickly commercialised.