New data curated by scientists from the University of Manchester has shown that the main culprit for aviation emissions in the connected continent of Europe is countless short-haul flights.

The study, recently published in the journal Transportation Research, found that a large number of flights over distances of less than 500 miles between city pairs with existing public transport connections are a significant contributor to harmful emissions.

In the month leading up to the major COP26 conference that will put the climate crisis at the forefront of leaders’ agendas, these results provide a clear opportunity to contain unnecessary pollution as we move towards net zero carbon targets.

The study’s lead author, Antonino Filippone, said: “Aviation authorities and airlines have the opportunity to review the frequency of these routes, reduce emissions, optimize networks, reduce congestion and make a positive contribution to environmental sustainability.”

To create the data models, the Manchester researchers used a rapidly growing radio data system to track global air traffic. Air traffic data was then integrated into aircraft emissions models to produce quantitative estimates of engine exhaust emissions for most aircraft types (fuel combustion, CO2, NOx, CO, UHC, SOx, non-volatile particles).

These emissions can be aggregated according to aircraft type, city pairs and routes, flight frequency and flight altitude. The team focused on estimating environmental emissions across the European continent, taking into account short-haul flights or flights under 300 miles (or 500 km).

Short flights between multiple city pairs have been identified within the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Poland operating flights over flat terrain and distances below 200 miles. The most frequent routes in the analyzed data included Copenhagen-Bromma (Stockholm), Gothenburg-Bromma (Sweden); Fiumicino (Rome) -Linate (Milan), Madrid-Oporto (Portugal) and a significant number of domestic routes in Poland, for example Warsaw-Krakow. There are also flights such as Brussels-Amsterdam (Schipol), which have good connections outside of air traffic, and many short flights in Central Europe.

The European transport network has been explored with geographic information, making it possible to identify extremely short flights operated across Europe before the COVID-19 pandemic virtually brought air traffic to a standstill. These flight networks have been integrated with advanced simulation methods that estimate gate-to-gate engine exhaust emissions. We show that actual flight range is the biggest discriminator in aviation emissions. We therefore highlight the possibility of reassessing the European network when there is a legitimate transport alternative.

The University of Manchester will have an important presence at COP26 and is just one example of how the university’s 600+ researchers in the fields of energy, climate change and sustainability are driving climate change. The impact of their ongoing work was recognized as number one in our ranking by the Times Higher Education University Impact.

Taking place in Glasgow from November 1 to 12, 2021, COP26 will bring together over 30,000 delegates from 197 countries to unite the world in fighting climate change. It comes at a crucial time after the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report last week showed that climate change is “widespread, rapid and intense”.

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