Aviation and CO2 emissions

Why are the CO2 emissions caused by aviation particularly problematic?

Aviation, together with data centres, is the industry which shows the greatest increase in CO2 emissions worldwide. The figures of air pollution caused by aviation have doubled during the last 15 years, and if unchecked, will further multiply by 7 before 2050 according to the UN estimates. 

Thus, the progress made in other domains, such as renewable energy, building renovation or public transport are nullified by the expansion of air traffic. For instance, a transatlantic round-trip flight emits 2 tonnes of CO2 per passenger: the equivalent of the annual reduction in air pollution that can be achieved by renouncing car as a mode of transport.

Despite its environmental impact, the aviation sector is almost entirely devoid of regulation: Kerosene is the only untaxed energy agent and air traffic is absent from the Kyoto Protocol as well as from Swiss law concerning CO2 emissions. The European Union has only recently decided to include air traffic in its Emissions Trading System (ETS) (see our press release in French). Consequently, as it does not factor in the environmental cost, the prices of air tickets remain artificially low, resulting in a high demand for air travel.

What is the situation in Switzerland and Geneva?

The aviation industry in Switzerland emits approximately 5 million tonnes of CO2 per year: 10% of the total Swiss carbon footprint, and the equivalent of the total emission of the service sector. In Geneva, where the economy is particularly ‘extraverted’ (due to HQs of international organisations, finance industry and multinationals), aeroplanes operating from the Geneva Cointrin Airport emit 1 million tons of CO2 per year. Over the last ten years, the number of passengers in Geneva Airport rose from 8 million to 13 million per year, increasing the emissions by 63%.

In Geneva, this sharp rise in air pollution caused by aviation demonstrates the voluntary attitude of the canton and the lack of consideration of the climatic consequences of its policies. Geneva Airport has exemplary policies in place to improve the environmental impact of their ground-infrastructure (building heatings, induced automobile traffic etc.); however, it does not take into account the actual number of flights, which has a much greater CO2 imprint.

graphe trafic aérien aéroport

Chart depicting the air traffic in Geneva between 1980 and 2010 [PDF]

Note: The drop in the emissions between 1990 and 2000 is linked to the withdrawal of the long courier flights to Kloten airport in Zürich, whereas the increase since 2000 is largely due to the development of Easyjet. The yellow arrow corresponds to the trend resulting from a linear regression calculated between 2000 and 2010.

What are the solutions?

CARPE is the umbrella organisation for 12 associations which specialises in air-traffic: Access their website here

IATA proposes the following actions:

1. Replacement of fossil resources by renewables

Third generation agrofuels (algae) that do not compete with agriculture are not currently available on a mass scale. In addition, obtaining them at a reasonable price remain highly speculative today.

2. Reducing flight-demand

This is the most viable solution, owing to the development of railway transport, local tourism, video conferencing and residential telecommunications. In Geneva, the potential for a reduction of consumption is particularly high, since the recent artificial demand is chiefly a consequence of the growth of Easyjet (regional low-cost airline). In order to reduce air traffic emissions, a rise in the price of flight tickets which better reflects the real costs is necessary. This can be achieved through incentivising taxes or severe CO2 compensations that are obligatory within the country.

Conclusion: Let’s shift the paradigm!

The current use of aviation generates dire consequences for our climate and for future generations. We need a more diligent attitude regarding the way we use air transportation. The aeronautic policies in Switzerland have to abandon the logic of the previous century, which urges to “respond” to demand; and instead “manage” this demand. In the same way electricians have understood that client satisfaction can result from the lowest energy consumption possible, let’s hope that the airports of tomorrow will value the limitations in the number of flights they allow their clients.

Calculating the CO2 emissions ascribed to aviation: The case of Geneva

The aeroplanes using the airport of Cointrin emit a million tons of CO2 per year. These emissions take place throughout the entire flight, which leads to the question: “Which country should they be attributed?”

To date, the aviation industry enjoys the benefit of this “extraterritoriality” which leads the states to play the blame game and avoid including aviation in their reports on CO2 emissions. The existing practice globally (e.g. the fossil fuels in the Kyoto protocol) considers that the emissions should be accounted to the country where the kerosene has been sold.

What should be the role played by the canton of Geneva?

The method adopted by the canton is the LTO standard (Landing and Take Off), which only takes into account the emissions produced below 3000 feet (950m). This method is not very tenable since it accounts for a mere 75’000 tonnes of the million tonnes of CO2 emitted per year. More than 90% of the emissions escape imputation, even though they are emitted at high altitudes and thus have a greater greenhouse effect.

The option of attributing the total emissions of Cointrin Airport to the canton would be inequitable considering the regional nature of the airport: Only a third of the passengers are from Geneva, whilst a third is from the canton of Vaud and quarter is 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 fuel 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 chosen, the initial statement remains compelling: The CO2 emission caused by aviation needs to be accounted for and the pollution it produces must be reduced.