Iceland's Volcano Put Carbon Emissions Spotlight on Air Travel

Order has been somewhat restored to the aviation industry in Europe now that Volcano Eyjafjallajoekull in Iceland has quieted somewhat.  A few questions remain not just about climate science but also about climate policy, particularly in regards to carbon emissions from air travel.

One the climate science side, there are questions about what the volcanic activity and accompanying sulfur dioxide emissions might do to cool the Earth.  The short answer is not much.  In the atmosphere, sulfur dioxide can act as a coolant, absorbing some of the incoming ultraviolet rays.

Previous volcanic eruptions have cooled the Earth.  For example, one of the largest Cascade eruptions in recent (geologic) history is the eruption that created Crater Lake.  This eruption cooled global temperatures an estimated 0.7 degrees Celsius for five years.  The eruption in Iceland is nowhere near as big and thus will not likely cause a noticeable cooling.

On the climate policy side, things are a little more interesting.  The eruption has spotlighted how intense air travel is in terms of carbon emissions.  In fact, the eruption reduced carbon emissions dramatically.  As the graphic shows, over 200,000 tons of carbon were saved each day that flights were canceled in Europe.

Of course this also created a huge economic loss for airlines.  By industry estimates, airlines lost around $2 billion due to hotel and per diem expenditures, paid wages, and lost business.  Airlines are asking for European governments to reimburse them for these costs since many of those governments require that airlines provide services to passengers and employees.

This could provide an interesting way for governments to stimulate private sector investments in clean energy.  Governments could pay out that $2 billion, but with the stipulation that airlines have to use half of the money to invest in new technologies to increase fuel efficiency.  Though air travel only accounts for 2.5% of carbon emissions globally, the intensity is as high as driving alone in your personal vehicle.  Further, the carbon emissions of flying are put directly into the atmosphere and have up to five times more impact than emissions from the ground.  Clearly efficiency would have some major climate-related benefits.

There are already a handful of measures and manufactures that have this goal in mind.  NASA and Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency Foundation launched a program that offers a $1.5 million prize for any group that can produce an aircraft that meets certain requirements.  Recently, a company called Solar Impulse test flew a completely solar powered airplane.  The plane attained 1200 meters in height and flew for a few hours.  The companyís stated goal is to fly a solar airplane around the world.  While both of these initiatives are geared more towards smaller-scale aircraft, imagine what $1 billion would do to inspire innovations in larger-scale aircraft.

This would force airline companies to reduce emissions much quicker than if left to their own devices.  Currently the aviation industry is very lightly regulated in terms of emissions and fuel efficiency.  A system in which the government set up higher fuel efficiency standards and airlines invested their money to find better technology would expedite carbon emissions reductions much faster than our current trajectory.

A volcanic eruption that helps cool the Earth not by injecting aerosols into the atmosphere, but by inspiring direct human action against climate change.  How cool would that be?

Photo Credit: Flickr