Aircraft emissions have impacts on air quality even greater than those they have on the climate

A new study, produced by MIT researchers and published in Environmental Research Letters, shows that the impact of aircraft on air quality is even more serious than the impact they have on the climate. Specifically, the researchers found that the same aviation sector, now in continuous growth, is the cause of at least twice the damage to air quality compared to damage to the climate.

According to Sebastian Eastham, a researcher at the Laboratory for Aviation and the Environment in the MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, the emissions caused by air transport represent one of the most important factors with regard to man-made climate change, a factor that can be calculated at a level of 5%.

Considering the entire flight, which also includes the take-off and landing phases, the same emissions produced by the aircraft are responsible for at least 16,000 premature deaths a year due to air pollution. This is 0.4% of the total deaths caused by air quality, a figure that almost always is not considered at all when analyzing air pollution.

As for possible solutions, the same researchers admit that reducing a type of emissions then almost automatically leads to the increase of another type.

“We could reduce NOx emissions by designing engines with lower combustor temperatures. However, the resulting loss of thermodynamic efficiency would mean that we need to burn more fuel, or more CO2. These are the types of compromises that need to be quantified and our study offers a quick way for those who have to make decisions to do so.”

Following the analysis they carried out, the researchers found that reducing CO2 emissions and aircraft contrails did not achieve the greatest net climate benefit. On the contrary, reducing NOx emissions during the flight would bring the greatest net benefits. Furthermore, the researchers concluded that aircraft emissions and air transport, in general, have an impact on air quality greater than the impact they have on the climate, an impact that is 1.7 to 4.4 times higher.

Natalie Ward

I am a graduate student at Wheaton College with a passion for writing and reporting on news that I feel is important. During my academic life, I have always strived to continue educating myself on a wide range of scientific areas and stay on top of the most interesting research. I joined in July of 2019 as a volunteer contributor, and have since contributed many pieces that have been well received. I am an avid reader of Nature Communications and Scientific American.

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Natalie Ward