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The 17,000 jets in the air today generate almost a third as much carbon dioxide as the billion cars on the road. Aviation’s climate impact is exacerbated by the emission of non-carbon-dioxide greenhouse gases by jets, and by the warming effect of the contrails and cirrus clouds aircraft produce. Despite uncertainty about the impacts of aircraft on cloud formation, scientists’ best guess is that the total impact of aviation on global warming to date has been about 40% that of all surface transport, including cars, trucks, and buses. Aircraft and their associated infrastructure have an impact on the ground as well, generating noise and emissions of conventional pollutants that can threaten public health.
Greater attention to improving efficiency is required if aviation, which already accounts for about four percent of the warming that has occurred since preindustrial times, is to avoid becoming a larger component of the climate change equation. The introduction of new designs has doubled the efficiency of commercial aircraft since 1960, but progress has stagnated in the last 20 years. A CO2standard for new aircraft, properly designed, could help promote the deployment of energy efficient technologies and new, cleaner aircraft designs. As a technical observer to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the ICCT is helping to design that standard.
Given the slowed pace of improvements in the average fuel efficiency of aircraft in the last two decades, operational changes could present a path towards significant improvements in the near to medium term. Modifications in climb rate, cruise speed, passenger amenities and improvements in routing and air traffic control, among others, offer fuel efficiency gains greater than those currently projected for near-term technology gains. These operational parameters are the focus of current ICCT studies, which will quantify the potential efficiency gains from improvements in many of these areas.