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March 2008  
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Home - AviationWorld - Article


Cover Story

The skies warm up

As the threat of global warming continues to loom large, it makes it pertinent for the aviation sector to review and update technology considering its contribution to the world emission levels

Changing weather patterns are giving world leaders plenty to think about. In his recent Union budget speech too, India’s finance minister, P Chidambaram announced a proposal to establish a permanent institutional mechanism to undertake measures to curtail climate change, including promoting clean technology products, while adhering to the principle of "common but differentiated responsibility".

The aviation industry, for all the growth it has shown, remains one of the biggest contributors to global warming. A report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1999 has clearly stated that airplanes are also part of the changing weather patterns. According to the report, planes account for some three per cent of the global warming experienced and could account for 15 per cent by 2050.

Reports have also indicated that carbon emissions have been growing by nearly five per cent every year and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that the increase in global air passenger traffic to over two billion by 2010 will only increase it further. The reason why ecologists are more concerned about the aviation sector’s contribution to these emissions is because planes travel at higher altitudes, aggravating the green house effect.

While there are other industries and businesses that contribute to global warming, the aviation sector is regarded to be among the fastest growing contributors. And even though aviation's share of overall greenhouse gas emissions is still modest its rapid growth undermines progress made in other sectors.

Although a few associations and other entities that might have interests in this particular segment have demonstrated partial (or complete) dissent from the majority opinion, the level of emissions caused by air travel is still a matter of concern - even to an industry as young and developing as that in India. Although it might not figure in the five top polluting industries in the world today, it may come back to haunt.

The plane truth

The World Travel & Tourism Summit held in Lisbon, Portugal in 2007 dedicated a session to this topic, so did the second International Conference on Tourism & Climate Change by World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) held in October 2007.

A bit of statistics clears the air. According to a few reports and studies, the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by air travel doubled between 1990 and 2004. That is incompatible with the need to reduce carbon emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 (or nearer 70 per cent by 2035 according to the latest research from the UK-based Tyndall Centre for climate change research).

The issue is being looked at seriously. Even ITB Berlin has dedicated a session to the same and its ITB Aviation Day is recognised as among the leading events for the global air transport industry, where corporate executives discuss key air transport topics. Nevertheless, the question whether air transport is a climate killer still remains a highly controversial issue.

The good part is that some international airline companies are showing commitment to do their bit. Scientific advisors to Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Atlantic Airways disagreed with George Monbiot, author of ‘The Age of Consent’ that suggests that airline fuel could be replaced by kerosene. Reportedly, Branson was prepared to invest over £1 billion in researching how bio-fuels might provide a low carbon alternative to kerosene. In fact, only recently, the airline operated the world's first commercial airline fuelled partly by renewable energy from London to Amsterdam. The bio-fuels blend on the Virgin flight contained 20 per cent neat bio-fuel (comprising babassu oil and coconut oil) and 80 per cent conventional jet fuel. Branson said tests had shown it was possible to fly with a 40 per cent blend and was of the opinion that algae were the most likely future source of renewable fuel for the airline industry.

Costa Rica-based Alex E Khajavi, CEO of the world's first and only carbon-neutral airline, Nature Air, was in India speaking about how India can focus on eco-friendly aviation. According to him, although the Kyoto Protocol sounds very technical, Nature Air has made it easy to follow. This has helped other airlines to execute the protocol by finding an easier way out and taking appropriate steps. Being a pioneer in this attempt, he says that sustainability is an extremely important factor. "It becomes a duty and necessity for us to preserve and protect the environment that we are living in. We are the users of resources and this should motivate us to protect and give back to the environment. Like development initiatives are a collective effort so should the environment saving efforts be. Therefore all participants like the ministry of civil aviation, tourism and commerce need to work together," Khajavi said. He added that in today's time the younger generation is more aware and educated about such initiatives and this has resulted in faster and effective implementation of efforts for achieving carbon neutrality. Speaking about the potential of India, he said, "India is rising on the world map. Sadly no large airlines in this country are serious on carbon neutrality."

Efficiency is the key

Giovanni Bisignani, director general and chief executive of IATA, is of the opinion that aviation's carbon footprint is growing, which is politically unacceptable for any industry. The challenge is to keep the many benefits of aviation - unprecedented global mobility that supports 32 million jobs and US$ 3.5 billion worth of economic activity - while eliminating its negative impacts. Unfortunately, punitive economic measures like emissions trading will not have a big impact on aviation's environmental performance.

With 28 per cent of costs coming directly from fuel, the airline industry has the strongest incentive in any industry to keep fuel consumption low. Bisignani says, "The International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) needs to work towards a global emissions trading scheme that states could implement on a mutual-consent basis. The answer is efficiency. It is the best way to take us to carbon-neutral growth. Airlines are investing billions of dollars in new, more fuel-efficient aircraft. In the last four decades, fuel efficiency increased 70 per cent and will improve a further 25 per cent by 2020. Better air traffic control, including straightened air routes and more efficient operations can reduce fuel burn by 18 per cent."

Greener option
Airlines have an option, albeit financially exhausting, to go green. Here's what they can do to reduce emissions:

  • Efficient aircraft: Airlines can reduce their emissions by investing in more efficient aircraft and engines and in optimising operations. Although the biggest improvements would typically arise from accelerated fleet renewal, many aircraft in the current fleets also hold potential for improvements. For instance, some aircraft can be retrofitted with technical devices at the tip of the wings ('winglets'), new surface treatments that reduce drag (air resistance) and even new engines. Airlines can also optimise their timetables, route network and flight frequencies to minimise the number of empty seats flown. 'Operational Opportunities to Minimise Fuel Use & Reduce Emissions', a catalogue published by ICAO, the international body responsible for aviation matters, offers more suggestions.
  • EU Emissions Trading Scheme: The EU Emissions Trading Scheme, which started on January 2005, covers almost 11,500 industrial installations which together are responsible for nearly half of all EU’s CO2 emissions. Operators of these installations receive emission allowances giving them the right to emit a certain level of CO2 per year.

    The total of these allowances creates a cap on overall emissions from these installations. Every year, operators must surrender the number of allowances equal to their actual emissions in that year. If they anticipate that their emissions will exceed their allowances, they can either take measures to reduce their emissions - for instance by installing more efficient technology - or they can buy additional emission allowances on the market, whichever is cheaper.

    Conversely, if their actual emissions are lower than their allowances, they can sell their surplus allowances or 'bank' them to cover future emissions. Including the aviation sector in the Emissions Trading Scheme would expand the market covered by an overall emissions cap. Aircraft operators would be allocated emission allowances, thus giving them a permanent incentive to reduce their climate impact, but they would also have the flexibility to buy or sell allowances as necessary. While a global system would be ideal, emissions trading at a global level is not a realistic option. ICAO has recognised this by deciding against the idea of a global system based on setting up a new legal instrument under ICAO auspices. In contrast, ICAO has endorsed the idea of incorporating international aviation emissions into states' existing trading schemes.

Source: European Commission

Responsible travel: Will it be a reality?

This is a tough question to answer. But there are things that may be done - stressing on domestic tourism, better rail connectivity. John Francis, PhD, founder of PlanetWalk, who refrained from using any transport for 22 years, says, "While I spent those years walking I realised that there was plenty to see and experience on ground and in my own backyard. While I believe air travel will be with us for the foreseeable future, a new travel model is evolving - 'going slow'."

But things might not be as simple when it comes to business travel. Arnie Weissmann, editor-in-chief of Travel Weekly, says, "For business travel, things get more complicated - carbon offsets are likely to be the only way that businesses will be able to justify travel."

However, air travel could become 10 per cent of a smaller total amount because we appreciate the value it gives to trade, relationships and peace. This, Jon Pontin of The Converging World feels, places a huge responsibility on the aviation industry to converge onto an appropriate scale where the benefits are equally shared and a long-term future makes sense in the light of total carbon emissions and dwindling energy supplies. "It will require all efforts possible to improve efficiency especially to reduce the number of planes taking off. It means a different pact with passengers," he says.

IATA's strategy of 4 core principles
- Lighter materials and more efficient engines have driven progress so far. Now it is time for governments to ensure that oil companies invest in research on alternative fuel sources

- Infrastructure and operations must be a part of the solution. Airlines are on track with their voluntary commitment to reduce emissions by 10 per cent between 2000 and 2010. Governments and air traffic service providers must contribute as well. Globally, optimised air traffic procedures could deliver 12 per cent greater efficiency

- Taxes are not the answer. A solution must be found that does not limit airlines' ability to invest in new technology

- Emissions trading may be a part of the solution but it must be a global solution agreed through ICAO. There is no time to get distracted with local or regional schemes.

Dispelling myths

Despite these discussions, there are associations like IATA that state that there are many ‘myths’ surrounding air transport. At its Second Aviation & the Environment Summit, Bisignani, identified five "myths" that need to be debunked:

I. Air transport was excluded from Kyoto and is doing nothing on the environment.

"Domestic aviation is included in Kyoto. International air transport was excluded but with a commitment to find a solution through ICAO by the 2007 Assembly. Airlines took environmental performance seriously long before Kyoto. Over the last 40 years emissions per passenger-kilometre have decreased by 70 per cent."

II. It is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions.

"Air transport contributes a small part of global CO2 emissions-two per cent. By contrast, the air transport industry supports eight per cent of global economic activity. Even if all air travel stopped, the result is only a two per cent global improvement in CO2 emissions. But the impact on global economies would be disastrous."

III. It is the most polluting form of transport.

"Airline fuel efficiency improved 20 per cent in the last decade, nearly five per cent over the past two years alone. Today's modern aircraft consume, on average 3.5 litres per 100 passenger-kilometres. This is similar to a small compact car but with six times the speed. Next generation aircraft-the Boeing 787 and Airbus A380 are targeting fuel efficiencies below three litres per 100 passenger-kilometers."

IV. It is getting a free ride by not paying tax on fuel.

"Air transport pays entirely for its own infrastructure - a US$ 42 billion annual bill. Airlines pay when they land, when they fly and when they park. This is completely different from both road and rail. On top of that air transport is a cash cow for many governments. In Europe every rail journey is subsidised between 2.4 and 7.4 Euros. But every air journey contributes between 4.6 and 8.4 Euros in government revenues and avoided expenditure."

V. Its growth is not sustainable.

"Air transport is essential. Air transport brings people to business, products to markets, tourists to holiday destinations and unites families and friends around the world. In short, air transport made the global village a reality. 80 per cent of aviation emissions are related to flights over 1,500 km for which there is no alternative mode of transport."


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