Jevon's Paradox in Aviation

Fuel efficiency improvements alone in aviation won’t reduce CO2 emissions. Additional measures are needed to effectively tackle the problem. The industry vowed to keep talking. Boloney.

Aircraft CO2 emissions are directly linked to fuel burning. Each pound of fuel saved reduces CO2 emissions by 3 pounds. The aviation industry says it is trying hard to minimize their environmental impact. Their goal is to reduce emissions by using more fuel efficient technologies.

Are we serious?


New aircrafts are 70% more fuel efficient than 40 years ago (Figure-1). Modern aircrafts are so fuel efficient they only consume 3 liters per 100 passenger-km (80 mile-passenger per gallon). This is better than a solo-driving of a European compact car 1.

Figure -1. Trend in Air Transport Fuel Efficiency 2.
Fuel burn per passenger – km. Base line = 100 (Comet-4)

In the meantime, worldwide CO2 emissions in air transport keep growing (Figure-2). Furthermore, ICAO 3 forecasts that global aviation emissions will grow by 70% over existing levels by 2020. By 2050, that would be 4 times today’s levels.




Figure-2. Global Aircraft Fuel Burn Forecast 3.
Millions of Metric-Tons..

Didn’t we say we want to reduce CO2 emissions?

We've been looking for ways to save fuel since the Wright Brothers’ first flight. It is good for business. But fuel efficiency on a per passenger-kilometer basis does not necessarily translate into emissions reduction in absolute terms. We must have a closer look at the emission reduction strategy.

More fuel efficiency would mean cheaper flights. People that up until now could not afford taking a plane would have access to this mode of transportation. Furthermore, occasional flyers like me would catch more flights and would fly to further away destinations. To be honest, I can’t wait to be able to afford a flight to Tierra del Fuego.

ICAO members met to talk about CO2 emissions reduction. ICAO is aware that fuel efficiency improvement is unlikely to deliver the level of reduction necessary to stabilize and then reduce aviation’s absolute emissions 3. Taking the necessary steps to effectively reduce CO2 emissions, like implementing fuel quotas or plant-a-tree fees, is not the best for business and therefore, no agreement was reached. The only agreement was to undertake further talks.

Boloney.

  1.  International Air Transport Association. Operational Fuel Efficiency
  2. Source: adapted from Fuel Efficiency of Commercial Aircraft. An overview of historical and future trends. National Aerospace Laboratory NLR. The Netherlands and Trends in Fuel Efficiency, Selected Passenger Jet Planes. The Geography of Transport Systems.
  3. International Civil Aviation Organization. Environmental Report 2010.

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