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Greater fuel efficiency is potentially preferable to reducing NOx emissions for aviation’s climate impacts

Skowron, Agnieszka and Lee, David S and Rodriguez De Leon, Ruben and Lim, Ling and Owen, Bethan (2021) Greater fuel efficiency is potentially preferable to reducing NOx emissions for aviation’s climate impacts. Nature Communications, 12 (564). ISSN 2041-1723


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Aviation emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) alter the composition of the atmosphere, perturbing the greenhouse gases ozone and methane, resulting in positive and negative radiative forcing effects, respectively. In 1981, the International Civil Aviation Organization adopted a first certification standard for the regulation of aircraft engine NOx emissions with subsequent increases in stringency in 1992, 1998, 2004 and 2010 to offset the growth of the environmental impact of air transport, the main motivation being to improve local air quality with the assumed co-benefit of reducing NOx emissions at altitude and therefore their climate impacts. Increased stringency is an ongoing topic of discussion and more stringent standards are usually associated with their beneficial environmental impact. Here we show that this is not necessarily the right direction with respect to reducing the climate impacts of aviation (as opposed to local air quality impacts) because of the tradeoff effects between reducing NOx emissions and increased fuel usage, along with a revised understanding of the radiative forcing effects of methane. Moreover, the predicted lower surface air pollution levels in the future will be beneficial for reducing the climate impact of aviation NOx emissions. Thus, further efforts leading to greater fuel efficiency, and therefore lower CO2 emissions, may be preferable to reducing NOx emissions in terms of aviation’s climate impacts.

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