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Small changes to flight routes could deliver big climate savings

By Lindsey Doermann

With small changes to trans-Atlantic flight routes, airlines could reduce their climate impact by up to 10 percent, according to a new study. These climate savings come with a 1 percent increase in operating costs for airlines.

While planes spew plenty of CO2, they also contribute to warming by forming contrails and by altering ozone and methane levels. The relationship between contrails and climate isn’t straightforward; they generally act to warm the climate, but in some cases they can have a cooling effect. Also, emissions from aircraft flying close to or within the stratosphere have a greater effect on climate than those released at lower altitudes.

An international team of researchers looked at simulations of 400 flights across 85 routes over the North Atlantic for a representative set of summer and winter weather patterns. They found that even small routing changes, to steer clear of regions where emissions would have a large impact, would significantly reduce climate impacts with a minimal increase in cost—mostly from fuel.

The researchers say that climate-optimal routing isn’t quite ready for the real world. And cost increases may not fly in an industry with already-slim profit margins. However, they add, market-based measures that account for non-CO2 climate impacts could offset that additional cost—and set up a win-win for the industry and the atmosphere.

Grewe V et al. Feasibility of climate-optimized air traffic routing for trans-Atlantic flights. Environmental Research Letters. 2017.
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