As the governments of the world prepare for the tough negotiations expected ahead of the global climate change talks in Copenhagen this December, the international aviation sector’s main players have agreed a common plan for ways to control and reduce aviation’s impact on climate change.
The world’s airline, airport, manufacturing and ANSP leaders have set an ambitious target to cap carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions by 2020 – regardless of how fast aviation grows – then aim to gradually reduce net aviation carbon emissions by 2050 so they will be 50% of the 2005 levels.
“At first sight this looks more like a public relations exercise rather than a realistic goal,” according to Ian Lowden, managing director RDG Solutions, a UK-based aviation consultancy. “But if you dig a bit deeper you will find there’s new technology out there that can deliver reduced CO2 emissions, as well as financial instruments and new operational procedures to make this a really practical target.”
Back in the early 1970s aviation faced a similar environmental crisis, when the first generation of intercontinental jets such as the B707 and VC10 brought fast and affordable global travel to millions, but they also raised the volume of engine noise beneath airport approach and departure routes.
The world’s largest airports quickly came under siege from protesting neighbours concerned about the relentless rise in aircraft noise levels and the industry responded with a technology ‘step-change’ – the high-bypass ratio jet engine, which mixes large amounts of cold air with the hot exhaust, increasing power but lowering noise levels. As a result, the number of people exposed to aircraft noise worldwide is going down all the time – by about 35% between 1998 and 2004, for example.
So is a similar step-change technology on the horizon today, which will lower aircraft CO2 emissions while improving the engine efficiency?
“Actually there are at least three which will soon be entering the market,” according to Paul Steele, executive director of the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG), a Geneva-based organisation which helps coordinate aviation industry environmental programmes.
“Just around the corner we will have the geared turbofan, which will offer at a least a 10%–20% reduction in CO2 emission levels over current levels; then open-rotor engines, offering at least another 10%–20%.
“Meanwhile recent research into second-generation biofuels has shown these could deliver at least an 80% improvement in total lifecycle emission levels compared to our current fuel. When you consider that conventional engine technology is improving at around 1% a year – and that’s before you take into account these technology step-changes – and the millions of dollars of research money we are pumping into new weight-saving materials and systems on aircraft, plus the new air traffic management procedures that will shorten routes and help aircraft glide onto the airport runway, then suddenly that target of stabilising our emissions in 2020 looks very realistic.”
“We need society’s permission to fly,” according to Alexander ter Kuile of the Amsterdam-based global air traffic control body CANSO. “While demand for air travel is an integral part of the developing global economy we all recognise that it cannot grow unconstrained. That’s not how the world works anymore.”
Willie Walsh, CEO of British Airways agreed in an article in The Guardian newspaper, saying: “International aviation emissions were not included in the Kyoto protocol 12 years ago. Now we have a chance to rectify that omission, and we must seize it. Our proposals represent the most environmentally effective and practical means of reducing aviation’s carbon impact. They are the best option for the planet and we urge the UN to adopt them.”
“The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) highlights that aviation accounts for 2% of all greenhouse gas emissions. We are a small part of the climate change problem,” says Steele. “But the problem is that, despite the current industry downturn, we are a sector that forecasts long-term growth, so that 2% is going to increase.”
Until now, international aviation has been exempt from commitments by individual states to lower their CO2 footprint – aviation emissions over international waters or between nations cannot easily be attributed to any particular state. But the upcoming Copenhagen meeting of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) will discuss new ways to control global-warming around the world, and aviation’s role will almost certainly be on the agenda.
“That’s why, as an industry, we’ve set these targets,” says Steele “As far as I know, we are the only industry sector at a global level to set common proposals and targets in this way. It is a remarkable effort to bring what is a diverse sector to a common position and common goals, really.”
The initial target of carbon neutral growth by 2020 is ambitious, but achievable, believes Steele, if the industry receives support from governments to implement the regulatory framework for the targets to be met. There are three major areas where the industry is calling on governments to provide incentives: investment in academic research and development for new technology breakthroughs; assistance to support fledgling sustainable aviation biofuels industries until they are able to support themselves; and muchneeded investment in upgrades to air traffic control systems that could save millions of tonnes of CO2 annually.
“Without the support of governments we simply won’t be able to reach our goals for a carbon-light future,” warns Steele. “Without a global agreement, states will develop their own rules and we will end up with a patchwork quilt of different regulations – some of which may be useful and workable but others which will be just crude ways of raising tax on aviation without contributing anything to improving the environment.”
“Aviation is vital to the future of the global economy – and its social fabric. We have a set of realistic targets and a means to reach them. I am confident and the industry is committed. We can stabilise our emissions from 2020 and cut aviation-related carbon emissions to 50% of the 2005 levels by 2050,” concludes Steele.
More information about aviation’s commitment to the environment can be found at www.enviro.aero/CNG2020.
Airport World 2009 - Issue 5