The airline industry is finally waking up to the fact that it needs to speak with one clear voice on the issue of the environment
Aviation’s impact on environment will be a key issue at this year’s IATA annual general meeting, which will focus on pushing for a united approach to counter the frequent depiction of aviation as “the bad guy” in the environmental debate.
“What we’re aiming for is consistency of message,” says Anthony Concil, director of communications at IATA. “We need to consolidate what we’ve done in the past and there is also an opportunity to decide how the industry goes forward on an issue that is changing, moving up governments’ agendas and which has the largest potential to impact us.”
Philippe Rochat, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), says IATA’s member airlines will be called upon at the AGM to sign up to a target of reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 25% per passenger kilometre by 2020. He notes this is a “global goal” and airlines “may have better or slower individual goals”. This planned reduction is based on improvements to existing technology, and Rochat says there are “hundreds of potential emissions savings” that can be made by airlines themselves. “It’s a challenge, but we’re confident it will succeed,” he adds.
Some of the ways in which airlines can reduce their fuel consumption today are being highlighted by an IATA campaign, which features a number of advertisements in the in-flight magazines of member airlines, describing such measures as carrying less ice on board aircraft to reduce weight and burn less fuel.
But despite such measures, the airline industry will find it difficult to escape the fact that its continued growth is the issue that needs to be addressed. “As well as efficiency, the industry also needs to look at its total footprint,” argues David Symons, director of corporate services at consultancy WSP Environmental. “There’s no point being more efficient if the volume of flying increases hugely so the total contribution from aviation continues to climb.”
However, the real potential for reducing CO2 emissions in the airline industry lies in the future, through the design of greener aircraft and the use of biofuels (see box). “There is the potential for 50% further efficiency improvements beyond 2020, but this will only bear fruit if airlines renew their fleets, which is a lengthy process,” says Rochat.
ATAG has launched its own campaign, the main tool of which is a new website (www.enviro.aero) aimed at providing responses to environmental criticism against the airline industry.
“ATAG made the decision a year ago to launch a cross--industry communications campaign to correct misperceptions and speak with one voice, using the same facts and figures,” says Rochat, adding that the website is a “rebuttal process to respond to every statement made” on aviation’s impact on the environment.
Rochat admits the website is “a bit late in the European context”, where the environmental debate is reaching fever pitch, but he hopes it will put the industry “in a better position to face [criticism] in other parts of the world”.
The planned inclusion of aviation in the European Union’s emissions trading scheme from 2011 has drawn a mixed response from the airline industry. The general consensus seems to be that it is a good idea in principle, but that it should be developed as a global system through ICAO and be preceded by improvements to infrastructure and air traffic management.
Lufthansa chief executive Wolfgang Mayrhuber commented recently: “Before politicians include the airline industry in emissions trading, we insist that other measures are exhausted. With the developments we ourselves can influence, and the effective measures from politicians [such as Single European Sky and infrastructure expansion], we could achieve more than we ever expected to gain from an emissions trading system.”
Referring to figures published by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Rochat points out that up to 12% of CO2 emissions are wasted due to lack of infrastructure, adding that: “If we implement the Single European Sky, we can save 12 million tonnes of CO2 a year, which is equivalent to the emissions of 3 million cars”. Nevertheless, he believes emissions trading is “possibly part of the solution, provided it’s well-defined and avoids distortion of competition between different modes of transport or between airlines”.
IATA estimates the cost of emissions trading to EU-based carriers will be €500 million ($672 million) in 2011 when it applies to intra-EU flights only. The cost to the entire industry is forecast to be €2.4 billion when the scheme is extended to cover all carriers in 2012. These estimates are based on a permit price of €33 per tonne, although IATA points out that the market for allowances is “volatile”.
Europe’s emissions trading scheme has come under intense criticism from the US government, which has accused the EU of taking unilateral action. Addressing the Phoenix Aviation Symposium in May, US Federal Aviation Administration administrator Marion Blakey said: “Trying to force a European solution on the world given the different aviation sectors, economic circumstances and environmental issues of countries is unworkable, not to mention illegal.”
One thing is clear: the aviation industry cannot afford to ignore its impact on the environment, and it must be seen to be doing all it can to reduce that impact. Airlines are beginning to realise this, which can be seen from the fact that they are devoting more and more time during their annual results presentations discussing their strategies for dealing with environmental concerns.
Rochat encourages the industry to have a “long-term vision” when it comes to aviation and the environment, but notes that “we’re not there yet”. ■
Carbon offsetting: just a gimmick? Fuel for thought
An increasing number of airlines are beginning to introduce their own carbon offsetting programmes, under which passengers can calculate the amount of CO2 a specific flight emits and make a corresponding donation to a conservation organisation to offset the impact. Delta Air Lines and SAS Group are among those carriers that have introduced such programmes, and Air France-KLM plans to follow suit at the end of June. So is there really any value to such schemes, or are they merely a gimmick designed to ease passengers’ consciences and keep them flying?
Philippe Rochat, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), believes carbon offsetting schemes are “not a bad idea” in theory, but cautions that some of the projects funded by such programmes lack credibility. “Carbon offsetting schemes are used to finance projects in the developing world, but they often lack the credibility and seriousness that’s required,” he notes, adding that “efforts have to be made to make these projects more reliable”.
Carbon offsetting schemes have also failed to gain the support of one of the airline industry’s harshest critics, environmental lobby group Greenpeace. “The truth is, once you’ve put a tonne of CO2 into the atmosphere there’s nothing offsetting can do to stop it changing our climate,” says Charlie Kronick, head of Greenpeace’s climate and energy campaign.
Rochat believes offsetting schemes should be taken into account for future emissions trading purposes. “There should be a link between carbon offsetting and emissions trading, whereby airlines making [emissions] savings through offsetting are credited with emissions trading allowances so they don’t pay twice,” he says.
One possible saving grace for the airline industry in the future could be the development of biofuels that can be suitably augmented to power civil aircraft. There have been recent movements towards making this a reality, including a partnership between Boeing
, Virgin Atlantic Airways
, GE Aviation and Virgin Fuels, which includes plans to carry out a joint biofuel demonstration using a Boeing 747-400
Philippe Rochat, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group, believes biofuels could be a viable solution to the negative impact of aviation on the environment, but not before 2020. But Dennis Bushnell, chief scientist at NASA
’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, is confident that within five years commercial aircraft could be powered using a type of biofuel derived from saltwater plants, or halophytes, grown in desert areas and irrigated using seawater.
“This is far from evolutionary, it’s just outside people’s radar and the usual human reaction to this is to say it’s impossible,” he says. “What’s nice about biofuel is it can use the existing infrastructure used by the oil companies and can be available much sooner than hydrogen, which would require changes to infrastructure and is, therefore, much further into the future.”
Timothy Held, manager of advanced combustor engineering at GE Aviation, believes some progress can be made within five years, but the entire process of developing and producing the fuel will take longer.
Other alternative fuel options include biodiesel derived from a range of biomass sources, from cow manure to sunflowers.
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