The importance of an informed choice of CO 2-equivalence metrics for contrail avoidance

Borella, Audran; Boucher, Olivier; Shine, Keith P.; Stettler, Marc; Tanaka, Katsumasa; Teoh, Roger; Bellouin, Nicolas

One of the proposed ways to reduce the climate impact of civil aviation is rerouting aircraft to minimise the formation of warming contrails. As this strategy may increase fuel consumption, it would only be beneficial if the climate impact reduction from the avoided contrails exceeds the negative impact of any additional carbon dioxide (CO 2) emitted by the rerouted flight. In this study, we calculate the surface temperature response of almost half-a-million flights that crossed the North Atlantic sector in 2019 and compare to the response of hypothetical rerouted flights. The climate impacts of contrails and CO 2 are assessed through the perspective of CO 2-equivalence metrics, defined here as nine combinations of different definitions and time horizons. We estimate that the total emitted CO 2 and the persistent contrails formed will have warmed the climate by 16.9 µK in 2039, 13.5 µK in 2069, and 14.0 µK in 2119. Under a scenario where 1 % additional carbon dioxide is enough to reroute all contrail-forming flights and avoid contrail formation completely, total warming would decrease by 4.6 (−27 %), 2.4 (−18 %), and 1.8 (−13 %) μK in 2039, 2069, and 2119, respectively. In most rerouting cases, the results based on the nine different CO 2-equivalence metrics agree that rerouting leads to a climate benefit, assuming that contrails are avoided as predicted. But the size of that benefit is very dependent on the choice of CO 2-equivalence metrics, contrail efficacy and CO 2 penalty. Sources of uncertainty not considered here could also heavily influence the perceived benefit. In about 10 % of rerouting cases, the climate damage resulting from contrail avoidance indicated by CO 2-equivalence metrics integrated over a 100-year time horizon is not predicted by metrics integrated over a 20-year time horizon. This study highlights, using North Atlantic flights as a case study, the implications of the choice of CO 2-equivalence metrics for contrail avoidance, but the choice is ultimately political.

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Borella, Audran / Boucher, Olivier / Shine, Keith P. / et al: The importance of an informed choice of CO2-equivalence metrics for contrail avoidance. 2024. Copernicus Publications.

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