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Getting off the ground: aviation and climate change

Louise Bateman
7th May 2009
Experts came together this week to discuss how the aviation industry could grow while protecting the environment. Louise Bateman reports.
The panel of experts was impressive, the venue was imposing and the debate under discussion was seemingly insurmountable. Yesterday, leaders from the aviation industry, scientists and environmentalists came together in an auditorium at the British Library in London to discuss whether it was possible for the industry to continue to grow while reducing its environmental impact. There was much up for debate: advances in technology, improvements in air traffic management, biofuels, regulation and a global deal on emissions trading. But an overriding theme of the conference, hosted by Transport Times magazine and sponsored by BAA, was just what a bad job the industry had so far done in getting its message across about how much it was already doing to keep emissions down and how much it cared about being sustainable.

“The benefits of aviation are often overlooked in the broad environmental debate in the UK and even more so the role the industry is playing in terms of achieving a carbon neutral growth path,” said Sir Roger Bone, president UK, Boeing. “Most of us feel a bit cross that we’ve been singled out, but we have a story to tell and we have to get out there and tell it more succinctly.”

Another panel member put it more starkly: “We have direct contact with the public, whom we strap into seats and we still haven’t managed to get our message across.”

The story the airline industry is keen to tell us about is that aviation is responsible for 32 million jobs and $3.5 trillion (£2.3 trillion) in economic activity worldwide. It has already achieved a great deal in keeping emissions down: 70 per cent over the last 60 years in fuel burn reductions alone, it claims. And it says it is continuing to take its responsibilities seriously through industry-wide initiatives, in-depth research, roadmaps, not to mention new airframe and engine technology.

The problem is at the same time as it has been busy making its engines more efficient and improving its aircraft, the number of people travelling by air has been increasing and with that so have CO2 emissions.

Currently, the aviation industry is responsible for two per cent of the world’s man-made carbon emissions and six per cent of the UKs. The recession has seen a decline this year in emissions, but this a blip in an otherwise upward trajectory over the next three decades if it goes unchecked.

“The global recession means aviation emissions have declined 7.8 per cent this year, but emissions are set to grow again at three per cent per annum in 2010 and 2011 and then at 2008 levels in 2012 and 2013,” conceded Paul Steele, executive director, Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), yesterday.

A coalition of UK airlines, aerospace manufacturers and air navigation service providers, believes that while it cannot do anything to stop emissions rising up to 2020, it has series of measures that it is working on that will see emissions levelling off after that date and then fall to below 2000 levels by 2050 – and it says it can do this even with a threefold increase in passenger numbers over the same period.

The coalition called Sustainable Aviation has set out these measures in a ‘UK Roadmap’, which it recently published. The roadmap is based on efficiencies expected from new airframe and engine technology, improved air traffic management and operations and the development of sustainable fuels.

Currently, the industry is most excited about the opportunities for emission reductions presented by the introduction of ‘second-generation’ biofuels. It has already conducted a series of trials using biofuels, which according to Steele, have performed “particularly well, if not slightly better” than oil-based kerosene fuels.

One of the attractions of biofuels is that they can be used as so-called ‘drop-in fuels’ – effectively mixed in with kerosene fuel and gradually introduced over time.

Christian Dumas, vice president Sustainable Development and Eco-Efficiency, Airbus, described them yesterday as “very promising”, while Sir Bone said they marked “a milestone” for the industry.

Nevertheless, the aviation industry admits that significant economic challenges remain; not least to do with when and how widely biofuels will be able to be introduced. Meanwhile, Jill Brady, chair of Sustainable Aviation and General Counsel, Virgin Atlantic Airways, said strict criteria for alternative fuels were being developed so as “not to impact on food production, water scarcity and land”.

It was clear from this week’s conference that the UK aviation industry was also staking a great deal of its future sustainability on advances in airframe and engine technology, and in particular research and development being conducted by Rolls-Royce into a new engine technology called ‘open rotor’.

According to Robert Nuttall, vice-president of Strategic Marketing at Rolls-Royce, the open rotor project will enable a single aircraft to save the carbon dioxide equivalent to planting 250,000 trees. “Technologies already on the drawing board show potential to reduce carbon dioxide by 30 per cent, nitrogen oxide by 60 per cent and noise by 15 to 20 decibels by 2020,” he said.

Meanwhile, Ian Hall, director of Investment and Development at NATS, which provides air traffic control services to aircraft flying in UK airspace, spoke of the role it was taking to reduce air traffic management-related (ATM) CO2. NATS has become the first air navigation services provider in the world to benchmark its environmental performance and set targets to reduce carbon dioxide related to ATM. Not only has it committed to creating a carbon-neutral estate by 2011, but also it claims that by March 2020, it will have cooperated with the industry in reducing ATM CO2 emissions by an average of 10 per cent per flight (against a 2006 baseline).

However, Hall admitted that “a major headache” for NATS was balancing noise and emissions. “Longer [aircraft] queues are driven by noise reduction issues, but queues equal more emissions,” he said.

There are other problems for ATM CO2 reductions, not least getting international cooperation between air traffic control services. NATS is in favour of the ‘Single European Sky’ plan, but this is project that has been on the drawing board for the past 40 years and still hasn’t been adopted.

Meanwhile, the wider aviation industry is grappling with its inclusion in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) from 2012. While Sustainable Aviation has lobbied for the aviation’s inclusion in the cap and trade scheme, several of its signatories are calling for a global sectoral approach to carbon emissions from international aviation in a new global climate agreement to be negotiated at the UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen in December.

Steele said that while AGTA supported economic measures, it was concerned that “overlapping ETS were going to cause problems" for the industry. “Aviation is a global industry and we should only be paying for emissions once,” he said.

Not everyone agreed that because aviation emissions were ‘mobile’ and the industry was seeking a global deal on emissions trading that it should therefore be exempt from the EU ETS.

Tim Johnson, director of NGO, Aviation Environmental Federation, said that a global measure as opposed to a global deal was what was important and it wasn’t clear at this stage how that would work. “Why get rid of duties and the EU ETS until we know if a global measure works?” he asked.

Meanwhile, Ben Combes, economic adviser to the Committee on Climate Change – which was formed following the UK Climate Change Act, passed last November –called into question how quickly the industry could deploy into new aircraft and fleets the technological advancements it was claiming were going to help it deliver a percentage reduction in CO2 emissions.

“The technology considerations need to be addressed, but we also need an understanding of timing,” he said.

Nevertheless, this week’s conference demonstrated the aviation industry is addressing its responsibilities towards meeting climate change targets. It still has a great deal to do to communicate those efforts to the public, the media and policy-makers, and it remains to be seen if it is going to be able to do enough and quickly enough within the timescales required. But it's a start. 

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