Blue skies ahead for greener flights?


Aviation Industry Starts to Get its Environmental Impact Act Together

High flying jets and aerobatic propeller aircraft noisily burned up the fuel giving thousands of spectators a thrill in the air and on the ground at last month’s Singapore Airshow.

Singapore Airshow 1Some of the exhibitors of very expensive hardware for commercial and military purposes were showing they definitely care about the environment by introducing lighter weight materials to cut fuel, cutting emissions of greenhouse gases, switching to bio jet fuels, recycling more and even make better use of aircraft after a life of flying.

Before the showy parts of the event got underway, the Aviation Industry Leadership Conference hosted by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the show organisers Experia Events (a Singapore Government owned group), industry experts and knowledgeable observers looked at the Future of Regulation and Growing Global Connectivity.

But the most interesting and important session – for the future of aviation and the planet – was entitled “The Journey to Carbon Neutral Growth”.

Singapore’s Minister for Transport Mr Lui Tuck Yew opened the one day conference and looked forward to “energetic” discussions referring to the 2012 event when the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme impact on aviation provoked “robust” discussions.

If anything the discussion this time was anything but robust or energetic. It was very mild-mannered, with the European Union’s man of the spot Matthew Baldwin, making it clear he was listening and he would take on board what he was hearing and seeing.

With representatives from IATA, ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation), the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and airlines on the panel,  it was an all-to- agreeable affair, on the surface anyway.

It was left to the only lady in the panel to point out that it has taken airlines (and the industry) more than 20 years to seriously address environmental issues and emission reductions effectively.

As Annie Petsonk put it to the gathered industry leaders – as well as in papers she has produced for the Environmental Defense Fund (a US based environmental NGO) – it was about time airlines came up with something real. After all, they had been talking about it for a long time.

She pointed out that the EU’s aviation directive – the only one in the world that sets enforceable limits on carbon pollution from aviation – was only introduced after nearly 15 years of “unproductive” negotiations in ICAO failed to develop any policy to control emissions.

But over the past two or three years, while airlines screamed blue murder and refused to comply with the aviation directive, some countries even threatening to stop flying to Europe, thereby hurting tourism and trade.  Some insisted that they would come up with a better way of dealing with the problem and – to be fair – there have been some definite and positive moves by manufacturers for a start.

So let’s put it in perspective. There are not many industries – and not one that is such a major player in the world – that does gives environmental impact the attention it deserves unless they are forced to. And while the industry itself – from manufacturers to the airlines that fly the aircraft –says it is doing all it can to commit to a future that is less harmful to the planet and its people.

But it is not all being done just because the industry thinks it should – it is under some pressure.

It all came to a head last year when the European Union was going to enforce an emissions charge on all airlines operating into and out of its airspace. There was such a hue and cry – and even talk by countries and airlines in North America and Asia that they would just stop flying in and out of Europe – that better sense prevailed and airlines decided they should collectively agree to a better way.

Singapore Airshow 2

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And to be fair, the big aircraft manufacturers were committed to produce lighter weight, more fuel efficient aircraft, and a number of airlines had tested bio jet fuels, and air traffic controllers, airport authorities and airlines had implemented various energy saving flight management plans.

So altogether airlines were saying:  “We are doing it. We are committed to do more. We have committed to a carbon neutral future”.

As Tony Tyler Director General and CEO of IATA told the conference: “Our goals are to achieve a 1.5% improvement in fuel efficiency annually by 2020; to cap net emissions with carbon neutral growth from 2020 and cut net emissions in half by 2050 as compared to 2005 levels. And we will achieve this through a combination of four elements: better technology, infrastructure, operations, and with a global mechanism for market based measures (MBM)”.

Keep an eye on that last acronym – MBM – because it keeps cropping up.

Annie Petsonk, as International Counsel, Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) drew attention to the testimony she gave to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, U.S. Senate in June 2012. She made the point then – and has repeated since – that aviation emissions from international flights almost doubled from 1990 to 2006.

Emissions from flights into and out of the United States are predicted to grow by about 75% by 2020 compared with 2005 levels. Without policy intervention, emissions from aviation globally are expected to quadruple by 2050.

While aviation is not the largest source of greenhouse gases, the sector’s global warming pollution is slated to increase dramatically. Aviation is “one of the fastest growing sources of emissions.”

In a March 2013 article for EDF Annie Petsonk pointed out:

Greenhouse gas emissions from airplanes are no small matter: if the aviation industry were a country, it would be the seventh largest emitter of carbon dioxide in the world – and a new report shows us the worst is yet to come.

She drew attention to a report from the  Manchester Metropolitan University which showed international aviation emissions are projected to increase by anywhere from a substantial 50% to a whopping 500%, and that means the aviation industry won’t be able to get anywhere near meeting its own modest commitments to reducing its emissions – unless it adopts a global market-based measure.

Admittedly the aviation industry has voluntarily committed to achieve no net increase in emissions from 2020 onward and to halve its emissions by 2050 from its 2005 levels through efficiency improvements including improved air traffic management, on-board technologies and biofuels.

However, another study which Ms Petsonk refers to, by Professor of Atmospheric Science and Director of Centre for Aviation, Transport, and the Environment (CATE) David Lee, Ph.D., shows emissions from the sector are projected to roughly triple, and make it impossible for airlines to meet their own commitments.

“None of the measures, or their combinations, for any growth scenario managed to meet the 2020 carbon-neutral goal, the 2005 stabilization of emissions goal, or the 2005-10% stabilization of emissions goal at 2050,” says Dr Lee.

There is a very big gap therefore between what the aviation industry can reduce through efficiency improvements and its goal of carbon neutral growth from 2020.

So, how can the aviation industry bridge the gap?

The answer, it appears – and this is asserted strongly by Ms Petsonk – comes down to market-based measures (MBM). However, the industry also seems to want to delay developing any serious global market-based approach until it is forced to or until ICAO and the EU can agree that this is the only way to go.

It seems Europe would agree to this – and forego its unilateral emissions tax on airlines. EU Climate Commissioner Connie Hedegaard is quoted as saying:  “we of course want a global, market-based mechanism for reducing aviation emissions”.

Ms Petsonk made it clear at the Singapore event that airlines could show good faith by saving emissions now, in order to draw on those reductions for the future and ought to throw their weight behind the development of a global market-based mechanism in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

So how would a MBM scheme work and would it be enough to satisfy the determined Europeans?

Maybe we should look at what is now happening on a voluntary basis, and according to IATA, at least 32 of its member airlines have introduced an offset programme either integrated into their web-sales engines or to a third party offset provider.

IATA explains: Passengers choose to offset the emissions caused by their flying. The principle is that emissions for each flight are divided amongst the passengers. Each passenger can therefore pay to offset the emissions caused by their share of the flight’s emissions. The airlines then offset their emissions by investing in carbon reduction projects that generate carbon credits. (See for more information on their recommended offset programmes).

It is over to the airline offering the scheme to also select the most appropriate emissions reduction programmes to invest in. These can be managed by offset providers like Climate Friendly in Australia which manages the Qantas programme.

Market based schemes – even voluntary ones that airlines introduce – have the support of ICAO and IATA. ICAO passed a resolution way back in 2010, which said:

“Voluntary carbon offsetting schemes constitute a practical way to offset CO2 emissions, and invites States to encourage their operators wishing to take early actions to use carbon offsetting, particularly through the use of credits generated from internationally recognized schemes such as the CDM.”

CDM is the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), one of the flexibility mechanisms defined in the Kyoto Protocol (IPCC, 2007) that provides for emissions reduction projects which generate Certified Emission Reduction units which may be traded in emissions trading schemes. There are other recognised offset schemes that are also approved by IATA and other international organisations and NGOs.

But moving from voluntary schemes, where airlines give passengers the chance to pay extra to offset their travel, maybe a long way from where the airlines needs to get to with an industry wide scheme, but Ms Petsonk is convinced that “the aviation industry can affordably meet and beat its goal of halting carbon emissions growth from 2020 if it uses high-quality, low-cost carbon offsets, to a study completed in August 2013 by the  Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF).

It makes clear that “an offset mechanism that limits credit supply to high-quality carbon units currently available and expected to come on-line in the future, could let airlines meet their emissions target at very modest cost.

“If governments adopt tough criteria ensuring that offsets represent real reductions in net carbon emissions, and if industry moves swiftly to capture those carbon units, the costs to airlines could be quite low – e.g., less than 0.5% of projected total international airline revenue in 2015, and less than a third of the fees airlines collected last year for checked bags, legroom and snacks.”

The EDF/Bloomberg study explained that “a well-designed global offset program, using high-quality offsets that represent real reductions in emissions, could add only a few dollars to a typical international fare”.


From Paris (CDG) to Beijing (PEK): $1.90 – $3.00 or from New York (JFK) to Buenos Aires (EZE): $2.10-$3.20.

So for the industry to develop MBM on a large scale it is worth looking at what some airlines are currently doing. An update from the Air Transport Action Group, Geneva explains how it works:

A passenger’s offset payment is based on the carbon footprint of their flight, the money going to emission-reducing projects.

Some carriers have mandatory charges, others make it entirely voluntary, while a middle-ground is making the payment an opt-out decision.

Silverjet has stated that if the industry was to charge its customers just US $1.8 (90p) for each hour they fly on average, the carbon pollution created by the aviation industry could be neutralised.

British Airways was the first airline to develop an offsetting service and has recently overseen a comprehensive overhaul of its carbon offsetting scheme.

British Airways has also takes part in the UK Government’s carbon trading scheme and reports,  as a result, it has reduced its C02 emissions on domestic flights by 23%.

New Zealand airline Pacific Blue – sister airline to Virgin Blue, which established the first government-certified carbon offset scheme – also launched a programme earlier in the year. All monies collected from the scheme will go towards Government-approved New Zealand projects to reduce carbon emissions.

Jetstar, part of the Qantas Group, suggest passengers are buying into carbon offsetting. Within one week of the launch of the airline’s programme, 10% of passengers paid to offset their carbon emissions.

The world’s first proclaimed carbon neutral airline has also arrived. Silverjet, an all-business airline, includes a mandatory carbon offset payment in its ticket price. Projects supported include one in India where solar panels are replacing kerosene burners.

Other airline offset schemes invest in deforestation programmes, tree planting, energy efficiency measures and new renewable energy projects. In all cases the emissions reduced by the investments are accounted for and audited by a third party.

But just as carbon offset schemes are not a single solution for any industry to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, aviation has to show it is taking steps in all other ways to cut emissions generated through the manufacturer, supply and use of aircraft. The Singapore Airshow gave another opportunity for manufacturers to demonstrate where they are up to through their own efforts :

•             Boeing made the first big move by introducing its light weight, carbon composite, fuel efficient 787 Dreamliner, which – despite of some issues with its lithium electric batteries on board – has shown what’s possible to do and achieve. It is 20% better than anything before (and its competitors) for fuel efficiency and less emissions. It is also 60% quieter. Boeing goes further to say that since the beginning of the jet age (more than 40 years ago ) aircraft today are 70% better in terms of fuel use and emissions and 90% quieter than the first.

•             Airbus has gone one better – or more than one – because its newest airliner, the A350 is 25% more fuel efficient than anything else around using lighter weight composites and thereby reducing emissions in flight. It is also incorporating newer and better lightweight materials in all its aircraft now in production.

•             Bombardier, admittedly a smaller player than the big two international suppliers, it doing its share by introducing lighter weight materials in the manufacture of its commercial aircraft  and investing in technologies to improve energy efficiency and reduce air emissions, resource consumption, and waste. For medium-haul applications, the CRJ NextGen family of aircraft is a benchmark for regional jet efficiency in the 60- to 99-seat segment, offering low operating costs, reduced environmental impact and enhanced cabin interiors.

One additional step the industry is taking involves the exploration into jet bio fuels. While this has been happening for a few years now, with a number of airlines trying out various bio fuels, Airbus announced at the Singapore Airshow another initiative, which aims to promote local production of sustainable jet fuels.

Airbus and key Malaysian partners have signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) to assess local solutions for sustainable bio-mass production in Malaysia.  The aim is to determine the most suitable feedstocks to ensure that any future jet fuel production in the region is based only on sustainable solutions. The first assessment is expected to be completed by December 2014.

Other partners include AMIC (Aerospace Malaysia Innovation Centre), MiGHT (Malaysian Industry-Government Group for High technology), UPM (Universiti Putra Malaysia), CIRAD (a French research centre working with developing countries to tackle international agricultural and development issues) and BioTech Corp (Malaysian Biotechnology Corporation).

The science advisor to the Prime Minister of Malaysia, chairman of MIGHT, BioTech Corp and AMIC, Prof Emeritus Dato’ Sri Dr. Zakri bin Abdul Hamid, said “The Centre of Excellence will help us to improve the understanding of the nature of aviation biofuel commercialisation in Malaysia, to identify the opportunities and challenges, and to evaluate the possibility of social, economic, market and technology change and its cost, obstacles and challenges.”

“We believe that the research will have positive effects on energy conservation and CO2 emissions reduction in the Malaysian and South-East Asia aviation sector”, said Professor Datuk Dr. Mohd Fauzi Hj Ramlan, Vice Chancellor of UPM.

“South-East Asia is a wide and productive region in terms of biomass. The creation of a Centre of Excellence in Malaysia, with local partners is an opportunity to ensure that any selected bio-mass satisfies strict sustainability criteria”, said Frédéric Eychenne, Airbus New Energies Programme Manager. “According to our latest Global Market Forecast, Asia-Pacific will lead in world traffic by 2032.Today’s MoU is part of our engagement to support traffic growth whilst reducing aviation’s footprint on the environment”.

Airbus supports the certification and development of commercial quantities of sustainable alternative fuels for aviation through promoting innovative regional projects world-wide. To date, Airbus has formed partnerships in Europe, America, Australia, Middle-East and China.

Demonstrating that it is doing even more, to show it is staying ahead of its American competitor, Airbus also announced another partnership, this time with the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) to jointly develop an operations concept for Air Traffic Flow Management (ATFM) based on Collaborative Decision Making (CDM).

The aim is to explore and introduce measures for increased flight efficiency, improved access to airports and lowered aircraft fuel consumption.

In all there is much being done – and much more to be done – to put into practice measures for the aviation industry to cut its emissions and become – as it says it intends to – a carbon neutral industry by 2020. It won’t be plain sailing – or flying for that matter – but if the can show that it means business and it can show genuine leadership, it will become the first major global industry to achieve such a sustainability target for the benefit of the environment and the global economy.

It has about six years to start undoing the damage associated with its progress over the first one hundred years of commercial aviation.


Article prepared by Ken Hickson, Chairman & SEO Sustain Ability Showcase Consultancy Asia Pte Ltd

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