Inevitably for such a high-profile industry, aviation is in the environmental spotlight. The green lobby is campaigning hard for all manner of regulation, with bigger aircraft, expanding airports and passenger traffic growth seemingly playing right into their hands.
However, even a cursory glance at the facts reveal an industry far removed from its public pariah status.
According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), aviation currently accounts for just 2% of man-made carbon emissions, forecast to rise to 3% by 2050.
Technology is making great strides in reducing even this limited impact. Fuel efficiency, for example, has improved by 70% in the last 40 years with a further 25% improvement expected by 2020. And by then around 10% of fuel used should be coming from alternative sources. Noise has come down too, with engines now around 20db quieter than 30 years ago.
The shift to e-ticketing has been estimated to save around 50,000 mature trees every year, while the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has called for zero-emissions technology within the next 50 years.
“We can see the potential building blocks for a carbon-free future,” says IATA director general and CEO, Giovanni Bisignani. “Fuel cell technology is here. The first solar powered aircraft is built and we can make fuel from biomass.”
IATA has highlighted a four-pillar strategy to address environmental concerns. Technology, operations, infrastructure and economic measures can all play their part in reducing emissions, it believes.
The IPCC estimates improved operations could save around 6% of CO2 emissions, while eliminating the inefficiencies in airports and airspace would account for another 12%.
A Single European Sky and a next-generation airspace system in the US are the two obvious goals here, although worldwide there is scope for action.
“Improvements in the Pearl River Delta around Hong Kong, for example, will also be important. Other airline-oriented schemes include shortening air routes, aircraft weight reduction and carbon offsetting.
Not all environmental initiatives have to take place at 10,000 metres. Airports are also playing their part, tackling ground service vehicles, passenger and staff transport, the energy used by airport buildings, waste management and aircraft emissions on the ground.
The most obvious move has been in converting the vast number of ground support vehicles to cleaner fuels – bioethanol, biodiesel, Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), and Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) are vying with electric power for dominance.
A variety of drivers are pushing the switch – cost, public pressure and regulatory mandates among them. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) both have airport emission reduction programmes in place. As research continues, alternative fuels can be expected to improve in performance and reduce in cost.
Meanwhile, eco-friendly passenger transport around the airport is being taken to the next level by London Heathrow. Airport Operator, BAA, has begun work on the world’s first Personal Rapid Transit (PRT) System, an automated train that will be deployed across the airport. Developed in conjunction with ATS Ltd, the Heathrow PRT system delivers carbon emissions that are 70% lower than cars and 50% lower than buses and trains.
“This innovative system forms part of BAA’s plan to transform Heathrow, improve the passenger experience and reduce the environmental impact of our operation through the development of cutting edge, green transport solutions,” says David Holdcroft, project manager.
“It offers a completely new form of public transport – one that will deliver a fast, efficient service to passengers and bring considerable environmental benefits, saving more than half of the fuel used by existing forms of public or private transport.”
Phase one of the Heathrow PRT system – which will ultimately be extended across the airport – will open in 2009.
The latest airport strategy of becoming multi-modal transport centres will also bring significant environmental benefits. The Heathrow Express connection to London Paddington means 3,000 fewer cars a day on an airport run. Similar reductions in the carbon footprint are being made across Europe, where the rail option is a key imperative.
In Germany, Munich Airport is planning the “Erding ring link”, an extension of the S-Bahn to Freising, as well as a Transrapid maglev train link from Munich’s main railway station. The maglev train promises to be quieter and more environmentally friendly than any other mode of airport feeder transportation. The approval process for the €1.85 billion project is due to finish later in 2008.
Airports may be growing but any infrastructure expansion is subject to stringent environmental scrutiny. Master plans undergo due process, land use around airport perimeters is being brought in line with industry requirements to avoid undue noise complaints, while new buildings utilise the latest techniques.
Munich again is a case in point, using a solar energy system that cuts approximately 400 tonnes of CO2 emissions every year. Dr Michael Kerkloh, airport CEO, also points out why expansion can actually be an environmental boon. “If we were to decide against the construction of the third runway in Munich, this would inevitably result in more aircraft circling in holding patterns with the resultant environmental effects,” he notes.
By 2020 Munich hopes to reduce CO2 emissions by 30%. In 2008, in addition to presenting a new research award for technological innovations that promote sustainable airport operations, it plans to add biogas to its energy supply mix. “We also want to achieve significant reductions in CO2 emissions through environmentally optimised construction and changes in everyday operational conduct,” adds Kerkloh.
Munich, along with fellow German airport, Frankfurt, is also delving into a more controversial area of emissions reduction – taxes and charges.
At the beginning of 2008 it introduced emission-based airport fees, specifically a €3 charge per kilogramme of nitrogen oxide. Around 45% of aircraft-specific fees at Munich are now determined by noise and pollutant emission levels. Kerkloh believes this sends a clear signal to airlines and aircraft manufacturers that it is worthwhile to utilise every possible means of reducing emissions.
The UK has also announced it will examine the possibility of a per-plane tax from 2009 rather the current passenger tax. The latter was doubled in 2007 under an environmental guise even though the money simply goes into a common till and is not used specifically to tackle environmental problems.
Indeed, the value of charging for emissions is somewhat clouded. The idea of carbon offsetting for example – where passengers pay to have their CO2 footprint for a journey offset through investment in ‘green’ projects – has even been likened to the old religious practice of selling indulgences. As long as you’ve got the money, carry on your guilty ways.
And even though environmental taxes are on the increase so too is passenger traffic, suggesting that such charges are doing little to dampen demand.
The EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), which will include intra-EU aviation from 2011, is also under attack – from both sides. João Vieira, of Transport and Environment (T&E), the sustainable transport campaigners, believes rather than cutting emissions, the scheme will end up as a subsidy to the aviation industry.
Aviation will be given free permits and then have unlimited credit-buying rights from other sectors. The T&E fears aviation would pass on the market price of permits to customers – as power generators did – effectively giving them a cash windfall. In short, the scheme is nowhere near demanding enough.
Aviation also questions the validity of the ETS. Although accepting emissions trading as a way forward, the global nature of the industry demands a global solution.
Already non-EU carriers are looking at legal action as the scheme intends to apply itself to all carriers operating flights to and from Europe from 2012. And inclusion in the ETS would raise doubts about paying other taxes – the industry would effectively be hit by a double-whammy.
IATA’s Bisignani has also pointed out that while the EU seems to be of one-mind on emissions trading the same cannot be said of airspace, where a Single European Sky would have an immediate and far more beneficial effect on CO2 reduction.
Rather like climate change itself there is a lot of misinformation regarding aviation’s impact on the environment. Better to go by train? Not necessarily. According to one study, a train travelling from London to Edinburgh at 350km/h (on proposed new high-speed lines) would use 22 litres of fuel per seat whereas an A321 would use 20.
And the Climate Outreach Information Network reports cruising London-New York on the QE2 involves a carbon footprint almost eight times greater than an equivalent flight.
This even ignores the economic side of the equation. Construction of the proposed maglev line running from Tokyo-Osaka is estimated at $82.5 billion for example.
Aviation, which largely pays for its own infrastructure, has a well-defined positive economic impact. The Air Transport Action Group puts air transport’s worth to the global economy at around $3 trillion or 8% of world GDP. It supports some 29 million jobs and additionally plays an important role in both social and cultural terms.
According to Airbus’ latest Global Market Forecast, there is a demand for some 24,300 new passenger and freighter aircraft between now and 2026. But by that end date, it expects the fuel burn of the average world fleet to be down to three litres per 100 passenger kilometres – competitive with the most economical cars on the road today.
Technology advances, it seems, could hold the key to allowing aviation to continue its role in world development while reducing its environmental impact.
This article features in Routes News 2008 Issue 1