Talking Climate Change Blues …

Unbeknownst to the vast majority of Americans, the amount of carbon commercial airplanes spew mostly into the upper reaches of the stratosphere and lower regions of the troposphere is something of a scandal in Europe.

The aviation industry pumps about 600 million tons of the stuff into the atmosphere every year, which is roughly equivalent to the annual output of the whole of Great Britain, the world’s fourth-largest industrial society.

(This fact is interesting to think about as I type this on my Blackberry somewhere in the sky between Washington DC and Seattle: my seat alone is individually accounting for a few hundred pounds of climate-changing carbon emissions! Another fun fact: one pound of jet fuel produces 3.16 pounds of carbon dioxide, as the combustion process fuses two really fat oxygen atoms onto a lonely little carbon atom.)

Right now, my seat’s miniscule — but measureable — contribution to the world’s carbon content costs me — and the aviation industry — nothing. But that will have to change if (or, really, when) the European Union enacts proposals to put a cap on airline carbon emissions, with the most efficient airlines allowed to trade "emissions credits" with the least efficient airlines.

This effectively forces the international aviation industry to join the emissions trading schemes imposed on most other industries already by the Kyodo Protocol.

As a (to put it mildly) Kyodo non-signatory, the Bush Administration is predictably very upset about these proposals, and is actively banding together with Third World and emerging countries such as China, and some industrial countries, such as Japan, to vigorously oppose the EU’s plan for an aviation emissions trading scheme.

The aviation industry fears that such trading schemes will raise the cost of travel from 1% to 3%. The environmental lobby in Europe effectively hopes to slow the industry’s growth. If left unchecked, aviation would grow by 500 million passengers per year by 2030. With emissions trading and other taxes, demand may instead fall to something like 300 miilion more passengers per year. (It’s at about 140 million pax per year now.)

It’s tempting to ask: will the aviation industry tolerate this artificial ceiling on growth? But the trend-lines suggest that the industry may have no choice and can only hope to influence the process at the margins.

Unlike other carbon-producing industries, aviation has no other source of power to fall back on. The electric grid can shift to nuclear energy. Automobiles can convert to hybrids. No such alternatives are viable for aircraft for at least another half-century, barring a miracle discovery that can unlock the energy potential of the hydrogen atom for aviation. The Fischer-Tropsch experiments by the US Air Force are also no help, as they also use a synthetic version of the same old carbon atom.

In a few weeks, I’ll report my observations in more depth in a 10-page special report about the topic for Flight International magazine.

I raise the issue here because I am always impressed — and sometimes embarassed — by the knowledge of many of my humble blog’s regular readers. If you’d like to discuss your thoughts, please email me at, or open a dialogue by posting your comments on this blog.


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2 Responses to Talking Climate Change Blues …

  1. Peter 21 May, 2007 at 5:14 am #

    I just thought I would link this Article about the challenges ahead for Airbus

    Considering the difficult situation Airbus is in and China’s plans to start building large commercial aircraft , the EU might, if successful at limiting the growth of the airline passenger market by 40%, bankrupt Airbus.
    That is of course, if Airbus does not get new subsidises

  2. Stephen 21 May, 2007 at 8:32 am #

    Far be it from me to quibble with the Great Aboulafia, and certainly there is no reason to doubt the severity of Airbus’s current situation, but let’s remember these things tend to come in cycles. It was only a few years ago that Airbus was up and Boeing was down. In fact, Boeing might be in the very same situation today if they had launched the Sonic Cruiser before 9/11 struck in 2001. Typically, either Airbus or Boeing has a good streak and becomes too cocky and makes a false move. That has certainly been the case with Airbus since 2004. Is it Boeing’s turn? Time will tell, but it’s a very fine line for any company to walk in this business, I believe.

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