When discussing any environmental issue in China, it’s always a struggle to decide which deserves more emphasis: how dire the situation is, or how hard Chinese authorities are trying to cope with it. China’s skies, waters and even sources of food are some of the most poisonously contaminated on Earth. Its efforts to curtail pollution and develop cleaner energy sources are some of the world’s most ambitious.
This tension also informs China’s plans for aviation. The immediate threat posed by airline emissions in China is less obviously dire than, say, the particulate pollution that so often makes big-city air opaque, or the heavy-metal tainting of food and groundwater supplies that has contributed to China’s current cancer epidemic. But airplane emissions are significant and will become more so, especially as aerospace grows faster than most other parts of China’s economy.
Demand for air travel has grown little in the Western world in the decade since the 9/11 attacks, but it has increased fourfold in China, and is growing in the rest of the developing world too. The U.S. and all the countries in Europe together have fewer than 10 new commercial airports now under construction; China is building perhaps 100 new ones and expanding many more. Boeing and Airbus base their major sales hopes for the coming generation of airliners in China. Meanwhile, the Chinese government is investing heavily in the aircraft that may eventually compete against them, Comac’s regional ARJ21 and long-haul C919.
Like so many aspects of China’s growth, all of this will have serious consequences for the environment. The world’s airliners produce about 2 percent of the world’s CO2 emissions and play at least twice as large a role in climate change because the effect of CO2 and some other greenhouse gases is greater at high altitude. Aviation’s share of global emissions has been rising, and China’s share in the aviation total has been rising faster still. If the current trend were to continue, efforts to reduce emissions elsewhere could be swamped by the sheer increase in air travel in the skies over China.
The aviation industry is long past the point of denial on emissions issues. Its European and U.S. leaders have realized that for reasons of appearance, as well as because of impending legislation and to forestall reaction from customers, they must act. They also have strong economic incentives. Fuel represents the largest single expense for airline companies. Every gallon they do not burn makes their flights more profitable.
The world’s airlines and aircraft makers, which operate on decades-long timetables rivaled by those of dam builders and designers of power plants, have resolved to cut their net carbon emissions by 2050 to half of what they were in 2005, even as total passenger miles traveled increase threefold or much more. China is the market where new planes are most rapidly being bought, deployed, and flown. It is therefore where the aerospace industry is doing the most interesting work to make aviation more sustainable.
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Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.