Vehicular emission has been considered as the main culprit of air pollution, but not anymore. With the expected passenger rise of 8.2 billion by 2025 and the expected industry revenues of $498 billion by 2022, there is a growing concern about the increased share of air pollution resulting due to aircraft industry.
Aviation is currently one of the fastest-growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions driving global climate change. According to World Wide Fund, Air travel is also the most carbon-intensive activity an individual can make. “The global aviation sector needs to get on a sustainable flight path now because the climate crisis is not going away. With aviation emissions left unaddressed, we can expect major storm clouds ahead,” mentions WWF.
Environmental activities, government, and non-government organisations all around the world are raising concerns about the growing carbon emission from air crafts.
According to social activist and environmentalist Anil Sood, “One Airbus with 160-180 seats pollutes the equivalent of 336 diesel cars. Thus, each passenger pollutes the equivalent of 2.1/1.8 cars. Besides, the landing and take-off of aeroplanes negatively affect the radius of 12.5 km of an area near the airport”.
He further said, “It has been observed, Delhi alone accounts for almost 30,000 tonnes of CO2 per day because of the aircraft traffic that flies through its skies. The effect of air traffic on the quality of air was evident after the covid-19 restrictions came into effect in 2020, during the first lockdown. With a complete ban on flights to and from Delhi, the air quality improved massively and the skies got clearer. Everyone realized how big role aircraft traffic plays in deteriorating the environment”.
According to WWF if the entire aviation sector were a country, it would be one of the top 10 carbon-polluting nations on the planet. “Air travel is also currently the most carbon-intensive activity an individual can make. A passenger taking flight from New York to London and back emits more emissions than an average person in Paraguay over the course of an entire year,” it says.
The fastest growing sector in air pollution contribution
Aircraft emission is growing at a faster rate in comparison to any other mode of transport. In Europe, CO2 emission from flights has increased by 28% since 2013; while in India it increased by 64% from 2012 to 2019.
India has also witnessed significant growth in this sector. Its domestic traffic makes up 69% of the total air traffic of south Asia. India’s airport capacity is expected to cater to about 1 billion trips annually by 2023 with the government pushing schemes like the UDAAN.
How does it impact the environment?
Emission from aviation is a major contributor to climate change. The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has stated if the entire aviation sector were a country, it would be one of the top 10 carbon-polluting nations on the planet.
In March this year, the Minister of State for Civil Aviation, VK Singh said in reply to a written question, “From 2016 to 2020, Indian passenger airlines emitted an estimated 84,322 kilotonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere”.
Health impact of air pollution
While there is a heavy environmental cost associated with aircraft pollution, it also accounts for huge health costs to India as well as the world. According to a Lancet research, globally, 6 to 7 million people die prematurely from air pollution, annually.
In 2019, more than 1.6 million died prematurely from air pollution in India, which accounts for 17.8 % of total deaths in the country. Besides, respiratory diseases have increased among about 70% of people in Indian cities.
Moreover, air pollution reduces 2.2 years of life for each person, globally, while in India; it reduces by 7.6 years for each person, according to a report in the Air Quality Life Index (AQLI) by the Energy Policy Institute at the University Of Chicago (EPIC).
Moreover, due to sound pollution created by aeroplanes leads to several physical and psychological disorders among humans, animals, and birds. The residents of Dwarka and Vasant Kunj in New Delhi have been fighting a battle against sound pollution created by aeroplanes, for the last 14 years through various court petitions and Public Interest Litigations (PIL). Both these residential areas are in the vicinity of Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport and planes cross these areas almost every two minutes.
While talking to The Statesman, Anil Sood, shared his observation about the sounds from the landing and take-off of planes ranging above 85 decibels in the Vasant Kunj area, which is way above the permissible level.
According to a report by the Indian Medical Association, the sound of more than 80 decibels not only damages the human ears but also has a bad effect on the whole body, affecting heart rate and blood pressure.
Economic loss due to air pollution
A combined report submitted by Greenpeace Southeast Asia, and the Centre for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) suggests air pollution costs $2.9 trillion, equal to 3.3 per cent of the world’s GDP. According to weforum report, India losses $95 billion every year, which is 3% of its total GDP and roughly equals 150% of its health budget, to air pollution,.
Should we ban short flights and fly less?
Seeing the severity of the increasing aircraft pollution, Anil Sood suggested a ban on shortfall flights as France did a few days back.
He also proposed to have flights of a minimum distance of 1000 km to decrease the carbon emission from aeroplanes. He put logical reasoning behind it; in India, short-distance travel from other modes of transport takes almost the same time as aeroplanes. It also decreases your cost of travel and carbon footprints.
On the other hand, according to an aviation expert and former general manager of the Airports Authority of India (AAI), GS Bawa, “Only for the sake of the environment we should not stop flights. We need to think from affordability and economies-of-scale point of view. As a developing nation, trade, commerce, and regional connectivity should be the points of concern”.
He further added, “Besides, for cost-cutting and sustainability, the industry is investing in research and development of low-emission aircraft and alternative fuels. Electric aircrafts are also being prepared. Bio-fuels and hydrogen fuels are into consideration for being adopted”.
Various action plans are being adopted to reduce aircraft pollution, globally
Despite the major impact of CO2 and non-CO2 emissions, there are no rules or guidelines to combat the issue. However, countries are doing it individually. A few days back, France took a major leap forward, formulating stricter air-traffic guidelines. It has banned short flights to and from locations, which otherwise can be travelled between 2.5 to 4 hours by train.
To reduce carbon emissions, Japan has re-routed its flights. By rerouting less than 2% of flights, Japan reduced nearly 60% of the warming effect by the aircrafts. European countries are working on synthetic fuels and advanced waste biofuels.
According to the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), research is ongoing on e-fuels, hydrogen fuel, electric aircraft, and AI-based aeroplanes.
Europe’s leading clean transport campaign group, Transport and Environment organisation, suggests currently it is difficult to reduce emissions in the aviation sector. Also, it needs huge funding for the research related to the above factors.
The only step which can be taken to cut aviation emissions is to educate people and spread awareness about using air-transport, reasonably.
As governments consider how to craft comprehensive climate plans for aviation, they should build it on five pillars:
- Promoting alternatives to air travel Increasing aircraft fuel efficiency
- Developing more sustainable aviation fuels–whether liquid fuels or electricity
- Removing carbon from the atmosphere through investment in renewable energy, carbon credits, and nature-based climate solutions
- Mitigating the effects of non-CO2 exhaust in the atmosphere