Aviation and shipping emissions in focus

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Article Published 15 Mar 2018 Last modified 11 May 2021
3 min read
The European Environment Agency (EEA) recently published its annual Transport and Environment Reporting Mechanism (TERM) report, which this year focused on aviation and shipping. The two sectors are growing rapidly, which also has an impact on the environment, notably emissions. We asked Anke Lükewille, EEA expert on air pollution, to explain the key points of this year’s TERM report.

This year’s TERM report looked at the impacts of aviation and shipping – why were these sectors chosen?

We decided to profile aviation and shipping as part of our TERM report to highlight the common types of problems the two sectors create in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Aviation activities, including flights but also airports themselves put a number of negative pressures on the environment, including greenhouse gas emissions, air pollutants, noise pollution, water demand and waste generation. Added to this, within the EU greenhouse gas emissions from international aviation have more than doubled since 1990.

Shipping activities also lead to significant emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollutants, noise and water pollution. Carbon dioxide emissions from global shipping could be 17% of all carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 if no further action is taken. While emissions of some pollutants from road transport have gone down in general (although not carbon dioxide), emissions from aviation and shipping continue to rise. By 2050, global aviation and shipping are together expected to contribute almost 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions unless further mitigation actions are taken. These sectors have regularly been assessed as part of our TERM indicators but only as one of the transport subsectors and we addressed aviation in the 2016 European Aviation Environmental Report. So it’s the first time that we address them specifically in our TERM report.

Why are emissions from aviation and shipping increasing?

We have observed a globalisation of trade over recent decades and both aviation and shipping have seen tremendous growth. This has led to a steady increase in emissions. The number of air passengers in Europe and globally, for example, has tripled since 1990. Another example is increased trade with emerging economies, which results in longer travel distances. We have also seen cheaper passenger flights, with low-cost carriers increasing their share of the market. This development accounts for much of the recent growth of passenger transport in Europe. The fleets of low-cost carriers are in general newer and cleaner, but the share of total flights doubled over a period of ten years.

How can the aviation and shipping sectors become more sustainable?

Governments have a key role to play by supporting investment in research, product standards and subsidies for new emerging technologies. Measures such as improving fuel efficiency by introducing lighter materials or other technical options will not be enough to meet European emission and sustainability targets. The public can also do their part. We are already seeing a debate on sustainable travel and consumer behaviour and that needs to be fostered. This can help to change lifestyles and transport habits.

What can the two sectors learn from other transport sectors?

In some instances, there are alternatives to the combustion of fossil fuels or even to the combustion engine. Let’s take shipping as an example. Harbour boats, part of the public transport system in Copenhagen, are running on biofuels. Some ferries in Norway and in other countries are already using batteries to improve their environmental footprint. Cities can provide an infrastructure for ships in ports where it is possible to get electricity on land so they can plug in and don’t have to idle their engines. This will not only reduce emissions, but will also help improve the air quality. In contrast, for aviation reducing greenhouse gas emissions from air transport remains one of the most difficult challenges within the transport sector. Aircraft will still be dependent on fossil fuels for the foreseeable future and the demand for air transport is expected to keep rising.

How will this TERM report be used by the EU? What is the EU doing in this field to reduce emissions?

This report helps inform policy discussions at European, national and local level on the issue of emissions from these two sectors. Due to their global nature, aviation and shipping emissions are mostly regulated via international organisations such as IMO (International Maritime Organization) and ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization). However, the EU is also taking action. Carbon dioxide emissions from aviation have been included in the EU Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) since January 2012. However, a 'stop the clock' provision currently excludes flights to and from non-European Economic Area countries from the scope of the ETS in order to enable a global agreement on aviation emissions. As a way to reduce air pollutant emissions in the shipping sector, sulphur oxide emission limits in two dedicated Emission Control Areas in EU waters have also been established. One in the Baltic Sea and another one covering the North Sea, including the English Channel. To comply with the limits, operators can for example, use low-sulphur fuel, install on board filters, or adopt alternative fuel technologies.

At the EEA we will continue to keep a close eye on emissions from the aviation and shipping sectors, via our updated indicators and regular reports and briefings.

Anke Lükewille

EEA expert on air pollution

The interview published in EEA Newsletter, Issue 2018/1, 15 March 2018


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