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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Transport impacts on atmosphere and climate: Aviation

  • Author(s): Lee, D.S.
  • Pitari, G.
  • Grewe, V.
  • Gierens, K.
  • Penner, J.E.
  • Petzold, A.
  • Prather, M.J.
  • Schumann, U.
  • Bais, A.
  • Berntsen, T.
  • Iachetti, D.
  • Lim, L. L.
  • Sausen, R.
  • et al.

Aviation alters the composition of the atmosphere globally and can thus drive climate change and ozone depletion. The last major international assessment of these impacts was made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 1999. Here, a comprehensive updated assessment of aviation is provided. Scientific advances since the 1999 assessment have reduced key uncertainties, sharpening the quantitative evaluation, yet the basic conclusions remain the same. The climate impact of aviation is driven by long-term impacts from CO2 emissions and shorter-term impacts from non-CO2 emissions and effects, which include the emissions of water vapour, particles and nitrogen oxides (NOx). The present-day radiative forcing from aviation (2005) is estimated to be 55 mW m−2 (excluding cirrus cloud enhancement), which represents some 3.5% (range 1.3–10%, 90% likelihood range) of current anthropogenic forcing, or 78 mW m−2 including cirrus cloud enhancement, representing 4.9% of current forcing (range 2–14%, 90% likelihood range). According to two SRES-compatible scenarios, future forcings may increase by factors of 3–4 over 2000 levels, in 2050. The effects of aviation emissions of CO2 on global mean surface temperature last for many hundreds of years (in common with other sources), whilst its non-CO2 effects on temperature last for decades. Much progress has been made in the last ten years on characterizing emissions, although major uncertainties remain over the nature of particles. Emissions of NOx result in production of ozone, a climate warming gas, and the reduction of ambient methane (a cooling effect) although the overall balance is warming, based upon current understanding. These NOx emissions from current subsonic aviation do not appear to deplete stratospheric ozone. Despite the progress made on modelling aviation's impacts on tropospheric chemistry, there remains a significant spread in model results. The knowledge of aviation's impacts on cloudiness has also improved: a limited number of studies have demonstrated an increase in cirrus cloud attributable to aviation although the magnitude varies: however, these trend analyses may be impacted by satellite artefacts. The effect of aviation particles on clouds (with and without contrails) may give rise to either a positive forcing or a negative forcing: the modelling and the underlying processes are highly uncertain, although the overall effect of contrails and enhanced cloudiness is considered to be a positive forcing and could be substantial, compared with other effects. The debate over quantification of aviation impacts has also progressed towards studying potential mitigation and the technological and atmospheric tradeoffs. Current studies are still relatively immature and more work is required to determine optimal technological development paths, which is an aspect that atmospheric science has much to contribute. In terms of alternative fuels, liquid hydrogen represents a possibility and may reduce some of aviation's impacts on climate if the fuel is produced in a carbon-neutral way: such fuel is unlikely to be utilized until a ‘hydrogen economy’ develops. The introduction of biofuels as a means of reducing CO2impacts represents a future possibility. However, even over and above land-use concerns and greenhouse gas budget issues, aviation fuels require strict adherence to safety standards and thus require extra processing compared with biofuels destined for other sectors, where the uptake of such fuel may be more beneficial in the first instance.

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