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Aviation emissions: Big data analysis sparks new concerns

For the first time, researchers have harnessed the power of big data to comprehensively assess the climate impact of global air travel. The experts meticulously calculated greenhouse gas emissions from aviation for 197 countries, shedding light on previously unreported data. The research is crucial for future environmental policy and planning.

Unreported aviation emissions

The 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) mandated that high-income nations report their aviation emissions. However, many countries, including economic giants like China and India, were not required to report their aviation emissions but could do so voluntarily.

This created a notable gap in global emissions data, which is problematic since the UNFCCC uses these reports to guide emissions reduction negotiations.

Jan Klenner, a PhD candidate at NTNU’s Industrial Ecology Programme and the lead researcher of the study, emphasized the importance of this new data. “Our work fills the reporting gaps, so that this can inform policy and hopefully improve future negotiations,” he stated.

The findings reveal that countries like China, which did not report its 2019 air travel-related emissions, ranked second only to the United States in total aviation emissions, highlighting a critical area of concern.

Clarity in aviation emissions

The study brings to light the per-country aviation emissions, including those previously unreported. This clarity is essential for understanding the global distribution of aviation emissions and strategizing reduction efforts.

“Now we have a much clearer picture of aviation emissions per country, which tells you something about how we can go about reducing them,” noted Helene Muri, a research professor and one of Klenner’s supervisors.

Surprising revelations

The study revealed that the United States leads in the total sum of aviation emissions from both international and domestic flights.

Interestingly, the per capita distribution of emissions indicates that economic well-being correlates with increased aviation activity. With a population of just 5.5 million, Norway ranked third (behind the US and Australia) in per capita domestic emissions.

Klenner’s 2022 study, using data from Norway, showed that domestic flights between major cities accounted for a significant portion of emissions, contradicting the assumption that geographical challenges are the primary drivers of high aviation emissions in Norway.

“The per person emissions in Norway were incredibly high. With this data set, we can confirm that from a Norwegian perspective we have a lot of work to do,” said Muri.

Big data’s role in air travel regulation

Anders Hammer Strømman, another co-supervisor of the project, highlighted the transformative role of big data in environmental regulation. “This model allows us to do instant emissions modeling – we can calculate the emissions from global aviation as it happens,” he noted.

This capability is particularly valuable as the aviation industry seeks to decarbonize, with big data providing insights into where new fuels and technologies could be most effectively tested.

The model, named AviTeam, is notably the first to provide emissions data for 45 lesser-developed countries that had never before inventoried their greenhouse gas emissions from aviation.

This innovation not only fills crucial data gaps but also equips these countries with vital information that was previously inaccessible.

Aviation emissions and climate action

The research serves as a key example of how big data can revolutionize our approach to understanding and mitigating climate change.

“Despite national pledges and international agreements, CO2 emissions from aviation have been increasing, and aviation is estimated to have contributed 2.4 percent to global anthropogenic CO2 emissions in recent years,” wrote the study authors. 

“Non-CO2 emissions from aviation fuel combustion comprise nitrogen oxides, sulfur oxides, carbon monoxide, non-volatile particulate matter, and organic carbon. These emissions also affect the climate, increasing aviation’s contribution to human-induced global warming to date to about 4 percent.” 

“Non-CO2 emissions can also affect air pollution and human health, the environment, and contribute to condensation trail formation.”

With a more comprehensive and immediate picture of global aviation emissions, policymakers and members of the aviation industry can coordinate targeted efforts to reduce their environmental impact.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.


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