Airlines Can Cut Greenhouse Gases and Save Money

A new study highlights how American air carriers can cut emissions and improve their bottom lines at the same time.
(Photo: chungking/Shutterstock)

(Photo: chungking/Shutterstock)

With international climate talks kicking off in Paris next week, we'll no doubt be hearing from some politicians that any effort to mitigate the nastier effects of climate change is a job-killing plot to harm the American economy. But even setting aside ample evidence of global warming's economic harm, there's another problem with that line of thinking: As new research on commercial air travel highlights, working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is a good thing for the environment, and for bottom lines.

Improvements in technology, air traffic management, and airline operations could cut emissions per passenger per mile by around two percent a year for the next several decades, a team of researchers led by Andreas Schäfer argue in Nature Climate Change.

Cutting greenhouse gas emissions makes good business sense.

At present, air travel accounts for 11 percent of transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, with two to three percent of global carbon dioxide emissions coming from planes. That's not so much compared to car travel or manufacturing, but with Federal Aviation Administration projections suggesting more people will take to the skies in the coming decades, it's not a drop in the bucket either.

The question for a profit-motivated airline industry executive, however, is likely not what they can do to fight climate change, but rather what it will cost them. With that in mind, Schäfer, along with colleagues Antony Evans, Tom Reynolds, and Lynnette Dray, looked at the financial costs and environmental benefits of 21 surprisingly diverse proposals to cut the amount of fuel airplanes guzzle and, in turn, the amount of carbon dioxide they produce. Those proposals fell into four categories: technological improvements, such as blended winglets and lighter materials; new fuels; changes to air traffic management; and operational strategies, including replacing older, less efficient planes earlier than originally planned.

For most of the proposals, the costs of upgrading are far outweighed by the fuel savings. For example, for every metric ton of carbon dioxide not belched into the air as a result of blended winglets, airlines would save $80, assuming a price of $3.1 per gallon of jet fuel, or $100 per barrel of crude oil. (That's higher than current prices, but hardly unprecedented, according to NASDAQ statistics.) Similarly, better surface congestion management and taxiing on a single engine could save $300 each per metric ton of carbon dioxide. Not everything works out so well—switching some planes to turboprops, for example, would cost $32,000 per ton of carbon dioxide saved—but on the whole, cutting greenhouse gas emissions makes good business sense.

"Consistent with our findings, the air transportation industry has already started to pursue all options we identified as being cost effective," the authors write, increasing their competitiveness while reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

Of course, whether that translates into reduced emissions—as opposed to reduced emissions per passenger per mile—depends on how much air travel grows. If airline fleets grow faster than 2.6 percent per year, the team calculates, total aircraft emissions will continue to grow, even if airlines adopt fuel-saving proposals.


Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.