When people discuss the proliferation of CO2 emissions into our atmosphere, chances are they are describing automobile and truck emissions or old-school manufacturing plants. However, one of the most significant contributors to rising levels of CO2 comes from the airline industry.
Airplanes add several pollutants to our environment, including nitrous gases, soot, sulfates, particles, and excess water vapor. Yet the most significant component of aircraft emissions remains CO2–up 70% of an airplane’s exhaust. When jet fuel burns, it produces CO2 at a rate of 3.16 kilograms of CO2 per 1 kilogram of fuel consumed. Once it enters the atmosphere, it doesn’t leave. 30% of the CO2 will remain for 30 years, 50% will still be there 100 years later, and the remaining 20% will exist in our air for over 1000 years.
Up until the 2020 pandemic, air travel and other commercial use of aircraft had been steadily rising. The annual growth rates of revenue passenger travel increased between 5.7% to 7.4% each year between 2013 and 2018. At this rate, passenger travel alone is expected to double by 2035 and then double again by 2050. The United States is by far the largest consumer of jet fuel. Worldwide, our jet fuel use per capita is 13 gallons per year (as of 2016). However, the United States uses jet fuel at a rate six times higher–75 gallons per capita.
What can offset the CO2 Emissions from Aircraft?
The good news is that regulations throughout many countries have increased the expectations for airline manufacturers to produce aircraft that weigh less and burns less fuel. For example, by implementing strategies such as adding aerodynamic fins on the wingtips, using only one engine during taxiing, and purchasing lightweight planes, United Airlines has improved its fuel efficiency by 45% since 1990.
Many airlines, including United Airlines, have begun using biofuel to power their planes. Biofuel jet fuel has up to 80% fewer carbon emissions than conventional jet fuel. However, airline companies continue to struggle to obtain enough fuel to meet their demand. Currently, only about 10% of United Airline’s fuel usage is biofuel.
Earlier this year, United Airlines announced plans to further address carbon emission issues by setting a goal for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. United Airlines has development plans underway to implement direct air capture technology to extract carbon dioxide from the air to achieve this goal.
These direct air capture structures look like walls constructed of layers of industrial size box fans. The fans draw air into the unit, where filters absorb the carbon. Once the filter is filled, the fan turns off, and a team heats the filter to 212℉ to release and capture the pure carbon dioxide. The CO2 can be used for many things, such as supplying the beverage industry with the substance needed to create the fizz in soda or a manufacturer mixing it with hydrogen to make synthetic gasoline. One company in Iceland combines carbon dioxide with water and pumps it underground. It forms natural basalt formations as the earth reacts with the carbon, and within a few years, turns into stone.
A typical carbon capture plant sits on about 100 acres and captures up to a million tons of CO2 in a year. For perspective, that’s equivalent to the work of 40 million trees. It costs the facility about $100 for each ton captured. While it would be impossible to build all 40,000 carbon capture plants it would take to offset the world’s current carbon emission levels, each plant constructed complements other efforts to reduce CO2 emissions and put a halt to climate change.
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The Rogue Valley Clean Cities Coalition’s mission is to enhance the livability of the Rogue Valley. We promote and educate on alternate fuels, seek to decrease dependency on petroleum, and promote clean air and water in the Rogue Valley via alternate fuels. Contact us today for more information!