A few years ago, flyskam, or flight shame, made headlines. Then the pandemic tamped down air travel. Now the greenhouse gas-emitting horrors of airplanes are back in the news, as a new study shows that aviation contributes more to global warming than was previously known.
According to a study published in Environmental Research Letters, aviation has contributed about 4% to known human-induced climate warming to date, even though it was responsible for only 2.4% of global CO2 emissions. Why the gap? Because of the mix of climate pollutants that aviation generates. And as far as keeping to the Paris agreement goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2050, aviation could gobble up 1/6 of that jump in temperature.
“Any growth in aviation emissions has a disproportionate impact, causing lots of warming,” Professor Myles Allen, co-author of the study, said in a statement. “But any decline also has a disproportionate impact in the other direction. So the good news is that we don’t actually need to all stop flying immediately to stop aviation from causing further global warming – but we do clearly need a fundamental change in direction now, and radical innovation in the future.”
Researchers responsible for the newly published study are based at the University of Oxford, Manchester Metropolitan University, and the NERC National Centre for Earth Observation. They developed a way to quantify how aviation emissions have historically contributed to temperature and examined both the CO2 and non-CO2 impacts. The researchers examined how CO2 combines with emissions of water vapors, particles and nitrogen oxides to alter the atmosphere’s chemical balance. This can affect cloudiness, thereby increasing aviation’s net warming. The study predicted how aviation could contribute to future global warming, depending on how people address the climate crisis.
“Our results show that aviation’s contribution to warming so far is approximately 4% and is increasing,” said Milan Klöwer, lead author of the study. “COVID reduced the amount people fly, but there is little chance for the aviation industry to meet any climate target if it aims for a return to normal.”
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