The risks that climate change poses to aviation

Eamonn Brennan

Interview with Eamonn Brennan, Director General EUROCONTROL

EUROCONTROL has accelerated its work on aviation sustainability in the past months, with a focus on providing answers on how the sector can transform and decarbonise to reach climate-neutrality by 2050. In our interview, EUROCONTROL Director General Eamonn Brennan talks about the risks that climate change poses to aviation, which will be the focus of a major study to be launched after the summer break.

Eamonn, the aviation sector is more used to the narrative that it poses a risk to climate change, not vice versa – what can you tell us about this study’s findings?

Everyone in aviation understands the pressing need to decarbonise. We’ve made a lot of progress, but there’s a huge amount still to do –electric, hybrid or hydrogen aircraft, massive sustainable aviation fuel uptake – before that can happen. But aviation is an essential sector to society, to prosperity, to connectivity. And we too are set to be massively impacted over the decades ahead, which is where this study comes in. It explicitly analyses the risks that climate change triggered by man-made emissions poses to European aviation. It details how this will progressively impact flight operations, airport capacity as a result of sea level rise, flight times, choice of destination by tourists and fuel burn.

What prompted EUROCONTROL to prepare this study now, in the midst of the pandemic?

This is a timely paper: as aviation starts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we want to ensure that building back better also means building back sustainably and increasing the climate-resilience of aviation, in line with the EU’s long-term vision to become a climate-resilient society. The initial focus of EUROCONTROL’s work on climate adaptation was mainly on identifying the operational, infrastructure and business risks of climate change for the sector, but this evolved as it became clear that a quantification of those risks was needed to better predict and prepare for the impact of climate change.

EUROCONTROL Climate change risk study 2021
Average ATFM delay for a flight delayed due to major storm

Preliminary results July 2021, EUROCONTROL

Provisional data indicate that average en-route ATFM delay for a flight delayed by a major storm will increase from 17-18 minutes per flight today, to 21-22 minutes by 2050. While storms are currently responsible for up to 7.5% of total en-route ATFM delays at network level, the trend is increasing. Initial estimates suggest that horizontal flight inefficiency could increase from 3.5% to 4.0-4.2% by 2050 due to major storms. For an aircraft flying 1,000 nautical miles, this would add 40 to 42 nautical miles to the journey. Already in 2019, over 1 million km were flown as a result of avoiding a major storm. This roughly corresponds to over 6,000t of extra fuel consumed, or over 19,000t of CO2 produced.

How will the climate change risk study support aviation?

Our new study will support the aviation community in their climate adaptation planning and facilitate an integrated and collaborative approach in building a climate –resilient European aviation network. As I have said before, aviation is likely to become a victim of climate change itself, if we do not mitigate its impact and take the right steps to transform the sector and make it fully sustainable. Just to give you an example: initial data from our study also suggests, that the number of airports at risk from severe or full runway flooding could increase by 15-21% by 2090, which is a significant risk.

EUROCONTROL Climate change risk study 2021
Impact on weather on horizontal flight inefficiency

Preliminary results July 2021, EUROCONTROL

Concretely, this means 178 coastal and low-lying airports could be affected. Assuming a one-day closure at an airport due to full flooding, the cost of diverted and cancelled flights are estimated at around €3 million for medium airports and €18 million for large airports. We are working closely with our Member States and all partners in aviation to identify and to implement appropriate adaptation responses.

The full report will be published after the summer, so watch out for it!

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