Airlines Could Cut Emissions In Half By 2050, And It Wouldn’t Be As Hard As You Think


It’s no secret that air travel is a huge contributor to global CO2 emissions. The exact number is about two to three percent, which may not sound like a lot on its own, but when you compare that number to emissions of entire countries, it’s on par with Germany. With developing countries starting to see more air travel, that percentage is only going to grow.

Luckily, there’s a solution—cut emissions! (Brilliant!According to a paper published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, it’s not that difficult, or even that expensive.

In the paper, researchers looked at the cost-effectiveness of reducing CO2 emissions through airline changes such as retiring old aircraft in favor of new designs, changing flight patterns, and even removing unnecessary paint. Sure, the changes would cost the airlines money initially—but that money is easily made back with the fuel savings.

“In our industry, emissions are closely linked to fuel, and fuel is life,” airline industry analyst Richard Aboulafia told Wired. “In other words, we’re the best self-disciplining industry on the planet.”

Consider the breakdown: If a gallon of fuel costs $3, and a single airplane consumes up to 3 billion gallons of fuel per year, that single airplane will cost the airline that owns it $9 million. Increase efficiency by even a drop and it starts adding up.

To be fair, airlines have already been in the fuel-efficiency game for some time. Between 1970 and 1980, emissions decreased by five percent every year. Since then, that number has only been two percent per year, which sounds okay, until you consider again the fact that developing countries are starting to fly a whole lot more than they used to. Which means that the efficiency gains will all but disappear, unless airlines start to get a move on, re: changing things up for the better.

Enter the paper. If that chart above looks confusing, it’s because it sort of is. But the gist of it is that the authors of the paper ranked 21 proposed emissions cuts in terms of efficiency and cost (here’s a good supplemental breakdown of each), and gave an idea of how quickly each strategy could realistically be implemented. Changes like reducing contingency fuel and aggressively reducing cabin weight (yikes) are more immediate options, while integration of synthetic fuels and changing over to next-generation aircraft are longer-term.

If all goes well, the paper, concludes, airlines could cut their emissions in half by 2050. Great news! Except,,,

“These emissions cuts pay for themselves when oil is selling at $50 to $100 per barrel,” paper co-author Andreas Schaefer told Wired. Which is more than it’s going for right now. Currently, oil is down to $40 to $45 per barrel, and economists don’t predict it rising again any time soon.

Translation: ultimately, the low cost of fuel means that scientific investigation into, say, combustible algae is not cost-effective. Because why pay lots and lots of money for research into something when its alternative is right there, available for purchase on the cheap? (It would be nice if an airline would make changes just to be environmentally proactive, but alas…)

The saving grace for these bold proposals could be the threat of EPA regulation, announced in June of this year. Sure, any new standards will probably take years to actually enact (the Obama administration acknowledged as much), but the warning is out there. Which means that airlines are surely thinking about the issue and might just start “aggressively” reducing cabin weight sooner than later.