The paper, ‘21st century civil aviation: Is it on course, or is it over confident and complacent? – thoughts on the conundrum of aviation and the environment’ published in the Aeronautical Journal, Vol 121, Issue 1236, pp 115-140, 2017 by D. I. A. Poll, offers insight into this complex dilemma.

Aviation delivers great commercial and social benefits, and as the global economy expands, demand for air transport will increase. The current industry expectation is that the global capacity growth rate will be running at approximately 5% per annum for the foreseeable future. Growth in the global economy is clearly a good thing. However, aviation also contributes to climate change at a time when there is increasing international pressure to limit mean global temperature rise. Therefore, the future success of aviation is likely to depend upon the industry’s ability to hold its environmental impact within politically acceptable limits.

The environmental impact comes from a number of sources, such as the carbon dioxide that is released as fuel is burned. The impact of carbon dioxide is well understood. However, less well understood are the impacts of the other emissions, namely – the other principal product of the combustion process – water vapour. Water vapour emissions play a central role in the creation of contrails. Of particular importance are the “persistent” contrails that are a common sight in the northern latitudes, which have the potential to influence the amount and duration of cloud cover – a significant contributor to global mean temperature. Persistent contrails occur when an aircraft flies through a region of air that contains a high concentration of water vapour at a very low temperature. Under the right conditions, the engine’s water and particulate emissions can initiate a massive precipitation of atmospheric water in the form of ice crystals. Initially, these crystals are trapped in the aircraft’s flow field, producing the familiar two parallel white line structure. Some estimates put the amount of ice formed to be up to 10 million times that attributable to the engine’s water production. Therefore, contrail formation is a major, although relatively short lived, atmospheric event with the potential to influence global mean temperature. In fact, current estimates suggest that the impact may be comparable to that of aviation’s carbon dioxide.

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At present, the International Council for Civil Aviation is focussing on reducing carbon dioxide emissions and it is recognised that, with current market growth rates, new technology alone cannot deliver an acceptable global, carbon emission rate in the necessary time scales. It is proposed that market based offset schemes be used to bridge the gap, but, for a variety of reasons, these are not an ideal solution. However, the available data suggest that the fuel currently burned per annum is almost double that needed if all aircraft were operating at their maximum economic efficiency. This suggests that all options have not yet been considered, or even identified, and that much may be gained by a careful assessment of airline operations and air traffic management practices and procedures.

Carbon dioxide may be only half the problem and greater consideration needs to be given to the mitigation of both the carbon dioxide and the non-carbon dioxide effects in an optimum, balanced way. Unfortunately, time is not on our side.


  1. Are you aware of the scientific data about “global dimming”, something that was pointed out in a documentary on BBC back in 2005. It was proved on the 48 hours after 9/11, when aircraft were grounded during that period that solar brightness was 20% brighter than “normal”, which is clearly due to aircraft.

    As someone who owns solar panels, I see myself the effects of contrails on solar output on a daily basis, so aside from the conspiracy theories behind “chemtrails”, there is a measurable climactic effect in terms of temperature change due to aircraft that is potentially far greater than their direct emissions alone…

    This of course could be seen as a positive in terms of keeping temperatures down, but is probably causing night-time temperatures to remain high, causing more ice melt.

    Additionally on sunny winter days, such a blocking of sunlight will also directly cause more CO2 emissions on the ground as our solar needs support via the coal or gas fired grid.

  2. Watch the documentary – bbc horizon 2005 global dimming on dailymotion. As a University I’m sure you should be able to access the real data the programme refers to.

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