A summary of the ways in which aviation impacts the environment is presented and the ratio of the energy liberated during a flight to the revenue work done (ETRW) is identified as a key indicator in the assessment of environmental impact. Using the ‘Breguet’ range equation, a number of theorems relating to ETRW are derived and discussed. This is followed by an approximate analysis to produce estimates for the ETRW of aircraft currently in service. It is found that the global fleet average value for ETRW is much higher than those estimated for existing individual aircraft. An explanation of the difference is presented, with the contributions from airline operations and air traffic management identified and quantified. Consideration is then given to the potential for future reduction in ETRW through advances in materials, alternative fuels, structures, aerodynamics and propulsion technologies and the likely benefits are quantified. The improvement in ETRW that could be achieved if this parameter was minimised in the design process with the current level of technology is also considered. Finally, the likelihood of performance improvements being introduced in the short, medium and long term is briefly discussed.