Understanding the impact of aviation on global warming
04 Nov 2021



Major new study reveals that aviation could consume up to one-sixth of the remaining temperature budget to limit warming to 1.5 ˚C.

Aeroplane contrails seen from space.

​​Aeroplane contrails seen from space.

Credit: NASA

Aviation is responsible for more global warming than implied by its carbon footprint alone. 

According to new research published today, aviation could consume up one-sixth of the remaining temperature budget required to limit warming to 1.5˚C by 2050. The article, published in Environmental Research Letters, suggests that emissions produced by the aviation industry must be reduced each year if the sector’s emissions are not to increase warming further. The study was part-funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) through a Covid-19 urgency grant and national capability funding to NERC’s National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) with research conducted by scientists from the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s (STFC) RAL Space.

Contributing to global warming

Given that aviation is widely recognized as a sector which is challenging to decarbonise, this research will inform the discussion about aviation’s ‘fair share’ of future warming.

The researchers behind the study, based at the University of Oxford, Manchester Metropolitan University, and NCEO and RAL Space, developed a simple technique for quantifying the temperature contribution of historical aviation emissions. This included both carbon dioxide and non-carbon dioxide impacts. The study also projects future warming due to aviation based on a range of possible solutions to the climate crisis.

Tackling global warming

The aviation industry has only recently begun to tackle the warming effect of flying, and this study is timely for quantifying that impact. 

The solutions discussed in this study, such as moving to alternative fuels, present a clear pathway to minimising warming but these will take time to implement. In the short-term, there are actions that the industry can take right now. 

Dr Simon Proud, of NCEO and STFC RAL Space, suggests, “A ban on fuel tankering - where aircraft carry more fuel than they need, and hence burn extra fuel, to save the cost of refuelling at the destination - would reduce CO2 emissions in Europe alone by almost one million tonnes.” 

Other solutions, such as more efficient air traffic control and minimising holding patterns at airports would also reduce emissions and help keep future warming minimal.

Further information

Read the full story from NERC and STFC​.
The research paper can be downloaded from the Environmental Research Letters website.

The study was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) grant number NE/V00946X/1 and NE/R016518/1, UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the Department for Transport, and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Action ACACIA under grant agreement number 875036​​.