Air traffic and CO2

In which way do CO2 emissions from air traffic pose problem ?

Aviation is the sector in which CO2 emissions are increasing the most: at the global level they have doubled in 15 years. The UN estimates that from now until 2050, the emissions will multiply by a factor of seven.

The efforts made in other domains – renewable energy, building renovation, development of public transportation etc. – are rendered useless by the expansion of emissions within aviation. A round trip transatlantic flight emits two tonnes of CO2 per passenger, which is equivalent to the annual economies realized by renouncing to the car as a mode of transportation.

Despite its increasing impact on the environment, this sector escapes almost totally to the regulations: kerosene is the only energy supply which is not taxed, air traffic is absent from the Kyoto Protocol, as from the Swiss law on CO2. Only the EU has decided to include air traffic in its Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) (see our press release in French). Consequently, the prices of flight tickets are kept artificially low due to the fact that environmental costs, amongst others, are excluded. This results in an artificially high demand for air travel.

What is the situation in Switzerland and in Geneva?

The air traffic in Switzerland emits almost 5 million tonnes of CO2 per year (10% of the total Swiss emissions), this is equivalent to the total amount of emissions of the service sector. In Geneva, where the economy is especially internationally oriented (international organisations, finance, multinationals etc.) the airplanes using Geneva Cointrin airport emit 1 million tonnes per year. In the last ten years, the number of passengers using the Geneva airport has gone from 8 to 13 million per year and the emissions have increased by 63%. How to account for theCO2 from airplanes: the Geneva case.

The high increase in air traffic in Geneva reflects the voluntaristic strategy of the canton. However, there is no reflection by the authorities on the climatic consequences of this politic. It must be said that the airport of Geneva independently carries out an exemplary environmental impact reduction policy of its infrastructures (heating of the buildings, induced automobile traffic etc.), however this does not affect the flights themselves, which have a much heavier CO2 imprint.

graphe trafic aérien aéroport

Graphic of the air traffic in Geneva 1980-2010 [PDF]

Note regarding the graphic: the reduction in emissions between 1990 and 2000 is due to the transfer of long courier flights to Kloten airport in Zürich, whereas the strong increase since 2000 is mainly due to the development of Easyjet. The yellow arrow corresponds to a tendency resulting from a linear regression calculated between 2000 and 2010.

What are the solutions ?

How to conciliate the necessity of the economy to dispose of well connected airports and the climate imperative requiring massive reductions in our CO2 emissions? Like in all issues related to energy, action has to be considered in three domains:

1. Improvement in energy efficiency:

The reduction of kerosene consumption is a constant preoccupation of aeronautic constructors. The technology of planes has today reached its maturity. Improvements in efficiency are still possible, also at the level of aerial route optimisation, but they remain limited.

2. Replacement of fossil resources by renewables:

The algae-based fuels of third generation, which do not enter in competition with agriculture, are to date not available. The possibility of them being available at a reasonable cost remains highly speculative.

3. Reduction of consumption:

This is the most viable solution, thanks to the development of alternative offers: railway transportation, local tourism, high tech video conferencing, and residential audiovisual telecommunication. In Geneva, the potential for reduction is particularly high since the development of Easyjet has generated a recent and artificial demand. In order to reduce the emissions of air traffic, the price of flight tickets has to augment significantly in order to reflect the real costs. This could be achieved through incentive taxes or serious CO2 compensations that are obligatory and mainly realized within Switzerland.

Conclusions : let’s change the paradigm !

The current use of aviation generates unbearable consequences for the climate and for future generations. It is necessary to be scrupulous about the way we use aerial transportation. This is why the aeronautic politic in Switzerland has to abandon the logic of the last century which urges to “respond to the demand”, thus entering the paradigm of the 21st century, that of “managing the demand”. In the same way that certain electricians have understood that client satisfaction results from the lowest energy consumption possible, let’s bet that the airports of tomorrow will value the necessity of avoiding their clients as many flights as possible.

How to attribute CO2 emissions of planes : te case of Geneva

The airplanes using the airport of Cointrin emit one million tonnes of CO2 per year. These emissions take place during their whole flight, so where should they be imputed?

Until this date, the aerial sector enjoys the benefit of “extraterritoriality” which leads the states to play the finger-pointing blame game and avoid including aviation in their statistics. The international practice in vigour within other domains (e.g. the fossil fuels in the Kyoto protocol) considers that the emissions are accounted for in the country where the kerosene has been sold.

Which role is to be played by the Geneva canton itself?

The method applied by the canton is the LTO (Landing and take off) norm, which only takes into account the emissions produced above 3000 feet (950m). This method is not reasonable since only 75’000 tonnes of CO2 emitted per year are accounted for out of the million that are actually emitted. More than 90% of the emissions escape being imputed, even though they are emitted at high altitudes and thus have a greater green house gas effect that those emitted on the ground.

The option of attributing the totality of emissions of Cointrin airport to the canton would be unfair, considering the regional nature of the airport (1/3 of the passengers are from Geneva, 1/3 from the canton of Vaud, 1/4 from neighbouring France).

In his theses on the potential of renewable energy for the Franco-Valdo-Geneva agglomeration, Jérôme Faessler from the University of Geneva, chooses to “account half of the fossil fuels consumption of the airport in the statistics of the canton of Geneva” and “the entirety of these fossil fuels are accounted to the population of the greater territory of the agglomeration, which is to say approximately 850’000 inhabitants”. Whichever method is applied, the initial observation remains compelling: the emissions produced by aviation need to be accounted for and their quantities reduced.