Since Russia closed its airspace to airlines from dozens of countries at the end of February – in response to the sanctions imposed for its invasion of Ukraine – around 400 flights a month which were previously routed over the country are forced to take up a wider berth, according to Flightradar24.
Instead of using Russian airspace, some flights from Europe to Asia fly south of the country or, in some cases, take a long, painful detour over the Arctic. And Russia is huge; it is the largest country on the planet – larger than the continent of Antarctica.
New routes mean more time in the air for passengers and crew, more miles traveled and more fuel burned, which means more planet-warming emissions.
Japanese Airlines Flight JL43 from Tokyo to London, for example, uses a Boeing 777-300ER that burns around 2,300 gallons of fuel per hour. Re-routed flight JL43 – now heading east over the North Pacific, Alaska, Canada and Greenland – added 2.4 flight hours and likely burned about 5,600 gallons of fuel in more, an increase of 20%.
That means Flight JL43 could emit an additional 54,000 kilograms, or 60 tonnes, of planet-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, University of Reading atmospheric scientist Paul Williams calculated for CNN. . That’s the same amount of carbon dioxide as an average car traveling 137,000 miles, or almost six times around the planet.
Williams said the exact rate of fuel burn depends on aircraft weight, altitude and speed, and some of those variables are unknown. These calculations also do not take into account the warming effect of other greenhouse gas emissions or condensation trains from flights.
“Naturally, a lot of people, when they think about aviation and climate, focus on the CO2 emitted,” Williams told CNN. “But, in fact, it’s much worse than that. CO2 is actually just the tip of the iceberg. The extra flight time causes a lot more warming than the mileages I gave you because they don’t take into account only CO2, not other non-CO2 effects.”
Dan Rutherford, director of aviation and marine programs for the International Council on Clean Transportation, told CNN that Williams’ calculations “seem reasonable.”
“If anything, it underestimates the likely impact because, at the margin, long-haul flights become even more fuel-intensive with added distance as they ‘burn fuel to carry fuel’, in the industry language,” Rutherford said.
In other words, it’s a vicious, fuel-hungry loop: it takes more fuel to support the weight of more fuel.
According to Flightradar24, the aircraft tracking service, there are a limited number of flights – mostly Finnair flights – using the polar route around Russia. Others take the southern route.
Lufthansa Flight LH716 from Frankfurt to Tokyo, for example, added almost an hour to his flight time. The Airbus A340 typically burns around 2,000 gallons of fuel per hour, which could mean the extra flight time burned an additional 1,428 gallons of fuel.
That’s an extra 13,710 kilograms of planet-warming emissions — the same amount released by an average car traveling 34,000 miles, or nearly twice around the world.
Rutherford estimated that if Russian airspace remains closed for longer, the global aviation carbon inventory could increase by up to 1%.
That sounds very small, but air travel is a significant contributor to the climate crisis, accounting for more than 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions in 2018, according to the Institute of Environmental and Energy Studies. The institute notes that if the aviation industry were its own country, it would rank 6th in carbon emissions.
“[However]I consider this to be a marginal impact that governments should not consider when developing policy regarding the Ukrainian invasion,” Rutherford told CNN. “It’s a small price to pay for defending global democracy and the international rule of law, in my personal opinion.”
But with the aviation industry struggling to decarbonizeWilliams said he expects aviation emissions to only increase over time.
“Aviation is struggling to decarbonize compared to the rest of the economy,” he said. “Because aircraft need so much energy to generate thrust, moving away from fossil fuels is really problematic. So aviation is only a small part of the puzzle right now, but in decades going forward, it will increase as a fraction of global emissions.”
But for now, the extra shows are unavoidable, Williams said. There are no other options than to go the long way around Russia.
Airlines can invest in new, more efficient planes and switch to sustainable aviation fuels, Rutherford said, but these are long-term solutions. Short-term strategies are limited.
“Additional fuel burn and emissions, as well as additional fuel costs due to higher oil prices in general, are fundamentally unavoidable for airlines,” Rutherford said. “In addition to paying more, they can reduce the payload – passengers or transport – at the cost of some revenue, or they can cancel the flight.”
In February, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said “current events” showed the world was too dependent on fossil fuels, calling it a “dead end”. A recent UN climate report shows that unless the warming of the Earth is considerably slowed downbillions of people and other species may no longer be able adapt to irreversible changes brought about by fossil fuel emissions.
Rutherford said he expects “renewed interest in the development of alternative fuels in shipping and aviation, to steer these industries away from Russian energy exports.”
“This war in particular is causing deep thinking about moving away from fossil fuels,” he said.
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