How to address the climate change challenge in transport projects?


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One example discussed in a recent event held at World Bank offices in Washington DC concerned an innovative technology solution in the aviation sector, which could reduce global CO2 emissions by 14 million tons!

Most of us agree that climate change is one of the greatest challenges that needed to be addressed. The transport sector accounts globally for about one third of greenhouse gas emissions, and the number is steadily rising with economic development. Experts agree that the main objective must be the reduction of green house gas emissions. However, at the same time we don’t want to hamper or reduce economic development, one of the key pillars for poverty reduction.

The low hanging fruit in the transport sector is improving energy efficiency or, to put it in simple terms, travel farther with less energy consumed. The air transport sector, which accounts for about 2% of global green house gas emissions, has made significant progress by reducing fuel consumption of jet engines by 70% since the introduction of the modern jet aircraft. However, there are still some domains in aviation, which can be addressed to further improve energy efficiency.

One of the most promising measures is improving air traffic control in order to optimize routing and air traffic procedures. However, this is only possible by improving air traffic surveillance, especially in developing and emerging markets where most for the airspace is not positively controlled by radar. Radar is expensive, both in installation and operations (a new radar site typically cost US$ 20 – 30 million with an annual operational cost of at least US$ 1 million). As a result, many emerging countries are still only controlled by "procedural air traffic control", which is inefficient and less accurate as aircraft need to follow fixed air routes that nearly never represent the optimal and shortest distance between origin and destination.

A new air traffic surveillance and communication technology, called Automatic Dependence Surveillance System Broadcast (ADS-B), is currently rolled out in the US and other parts of the world. At about 10% of the cost of radar installations, this technology represents a great opportunity for developing countries to leapfrog directly into new air traffic surveillance systems, which will address both, air transport safety and efficiency resulting in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

An Air Transport Brown Bag Luncheon was held on May 11, 2011 at the World Bank on the topic of ADS-B technology for air traffic control. Skip Nelson from ADS-B Technologies outlined this innovative approach in a presentation called “Over-the-Horizon ADS-B for Global Air Traffic Control”. He discussed some recent ADS-B installations in China, the experiences of the US FAA in Alaska, and developments of ADS-B on the long-haul oceanic routes that will greatly improve efficiency. It became clear that this represents a great example of applying new technology (= innovation) to address a global challenge (climate change) in the transport sector. Especially developing countries would benefit the most (going from no surveillance to the newest technology), as these innovative technologies provide very accurate surveillance capability at a fraction of the cost of traditional radar systems (compare it with the introduction of cell phones, substituting land lines).

The Bank is currently preparing a few air transport infrastructure projects with components for the introduction of ADS-B in Tonga, Tanzania and several other countries. Stay tuned for more innovation in the transport sector!

For further information about ADS-B Technologies, please go to:


Charles E. Schlumberger

Lead Air Transport Specialist

Join the Conversation

Richard Janda
May 17, 2011

These are helpful and important measures but they will not be enough. Even if one adds new bio-fuels to the mix, the problem is that we will not be bringing emissions down fat the necessary pace. Perhaps the most striking way to visualize the challenge we face is at As of today, we are estimated to be just less than 33 years away from the point at which humanity will have pumped 1 trillion tons of carbon into the atmosphere since industrialization began, and thus most likely to produce global warming of 2°C – a temperature rise now generally understood to be at dangerous levels for maintaining the prospects of life. To avoid this, aviation will have to be tied rigorously to carbon offsets. How can that be made to happen, especially since the aviation industry has steadily resisted building itself into carbon markets, for example under the EU ETS?

Perhaps we need a new approach. What if there were a financial incentive to purchase carbon offsets, rather than the unrequited gift that is now made, perhaps under the aegis of corporate social responsibility? As of September 2010, for example, Air Canada's carbon offset program – as salutary as it is – had only amassed CAD$263,000 amounting to just over 16,000 tons of carbon; a drop in the bucket. Imagine if carbon offsets were treated as a charitable donation eligible for tax credit. Imagine further that businesses, including carriers, participated in a Dutch auction to receive those tax credits at least cost to the government treasury in return for each purchased Certified Emission Reduction unit (under the Clean Development Mechanism – but other units could be eligible). That is, imagine a bid to take, say, a 20% credit rather than a 50% credit in return for purchasing x CERs.

The time must come – well short of 33 years from now – when the aviation industry will be a 0 footprint industry provided that (a) all technical solutions are exploited to reduce emissions and (b) all emissions are offset. But this has to done by the right combination of carrots and sticks. Today's sticks, perhaps with the exception of the EU ETS, have but modest force. We should start exploring carrots, particularly those available through philanthrofinance. Maybe tax shelters can help save us!

Sarosh Bhatti
May 18, 2011

I think that these are the ways to go forward. We should try to get technology which is affordable by developing countries. Any then by the help of this technology we can have direct routings etc so that the flight time can be reduced, which will eventually lead to less burnoff of fuel and less emmissions

Aurelio Garcia
May 19, 2011

"...which could reduce global CO2 emissions by 14 million tons!" Nice article, but how much exactly is 14 million tons? I mean, what are the overall emissions of CO2 by aircrafts? 50 trillions? 50,000 trillions?

We really have a lot of problems communicating with the general public. I remember seeing a big banner the other day in the MC boasting that the WB has spent about $750 million fighting malaria since 2005. Well, that's basically 8 days of sales for a company like Coca-Cola. We are never going to be able to communicate anything unless we start putting things in perspective and focus on tangible impacts rather than on huge vague numbers.

Charles E. Schlumberger
May 19, 2011

I fully agree that that a 14 million ton CO2 reduction by more direct routing would just be a drop in the water, but let’s face it: aviation in it-self, with currently only 2% percent (albeit rapidly growing), global greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) is just a drop in the global emissions bucket! However, aviation is the most promising industry to make significant global progress in introducing measures to reduce GHG emissions: it has global standards and regulations, is sensitive to the issue (due to negative press), and it can easily be taxed (e.g. ticket levy).

The challenges are multiple issues. First of all, many governments see aviation as a welcome cash-cow to levy some urgent needed funds for their empty coffers. These levies, technically motivating passengers to travel less by increasing the ticket price, are not very effective. The recent increase in oil price (as per 01 April 2011 a 45% increase resulting in $58 billion increase in operational cost of the industry) is far more effective to curb demand. Emissions trading schemes are a great system if there is enough demand and supply of emissions rights. However, if oil continues to rise, there is less traffic and no immediate need for rights; and if traffic increases, then we may come to the point where to industry has not enough rights left, and we will just start to fill the covers of treasuries by buying additional pubic rights. In other words, we need to expand the ETS to more industries, and this at least in all nations of the major aviation markets (EU, USA, and some emerging markets). We are far away from these nations to introduce this system e.g. in surface transportation.

So this brings us to your suggested off-set programs. Certainly, this would be a great solution if we had enough proven programs (how many trees can we plant or how many industries can we motivate and finance their reduction of CO2 emissions). In addition, we need to have a global solution or at least enforcement in all nations of the major markets. If not, we start distorting competition because some carriers would not need to finance off-sets while others do (e.g. some sixth freedom operations in non off-set countries would benefit).

This finally brings us the voluntary “good citizen” approach in off-set programs, where it is a civic duty to off-set your carbon footprint. I am very in favor of this approach, but budget cuts around the world (e.g. some executives are forced to travel economy class) makes this less attractive. Much marketing and communication is needed, in a world where many other sectors (e.g. water, health, security) need support.

In conclusion: the aviation industry has a great opportunity to lead the transport industry by implementing several measures to reduce and off-set their carbon emissions. However, each in itself, as well as the industry overall, just represents some drops in the water – but many drops may eventually constitute a movement that may catalyze other industries.

Aurelio Navarrete
May 19, 2011

Most airline companies have to resort to creative accounting techniques to actually be able to produce a profit, and many of them have been in bankruptcy at least once. In such a competitive industry, where profits are usually a dream, I just don't see the airlines investing in clean technologies unless governments step in with some sort of incentive.