Airlines are responding to the need to cut their carbon footprint. But so far the industry has lacked the big breakthrough idea to achieve the emissions reductions required

On 30 January, a small piece of aviation history took place. A 747 took off from Tokyo’s international airport and, an hour later, landed safely on the same strip of tarmac.

The Japanese plane was not propelled by fossil fuel but by a biofuel mix based on camelina and jatropha oilseed plants. The event was the first biofuel test flight in Asia, and followed on from similar tests by other airlines last year.

The development comes at a historic moment for the aviation industry. Last century, the world marvelled as the sector’s big players battled with science to send bigger and faster planes into the sky. This century, in contrast, the world’s scientists are asking if aeronautics was such a good idea after all. The global aviation sector is estimated to be responsible for 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

Some airlines are getting the message. In February, Air France-KLM, British Airways, Cathay Pacific and Virgin Atlantic joined airport operator BAA in calling for air travel emissions to be included in a post-2012 global climate deal. But their progressive stance flies in the face of an industry that continues to deny it is a major polluter.

The European Regions Airline Association says that aviation is responsible for only an eighth of the total carbon emissions caused by the transport sector (itself only a fifth of total carbon emissions). The real culprit is road travel, the trade body maintains, blaming it for 80% of transport’s total emissions.

The International Air Transport Association – better known as IATA – beats the same drum. Airlines might be to blame for 2% of carbon emissions, it says, but they are responsible for 8% of global economic activity. End flying, they argue, and the climate change benefits will be minimal. The impact on the world economy, on the other hand, would be “disastrous”.

Environmental groups don’t buy such arguments. Air travel, campaigners respond, emits 10 times more carbon than travelling by train. The most concerning factor, however, is aviation’s growth. Fifty years ago, flying was a luxury. Today, it’s become a habit.

Passenger traffic has grown at roughly 9% a year since 1960. The boom in low-cost carriers continues to drive that growth. If air travel increases as projected, aviation’s emissions will more than double to between 5% and 6% of the global total by 2050.

Long-term growth trends show that flying is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions, according to environment group Greenpeace. In the 1990s alone, US carbon emissions from aviation doubled.

At a time when the developed world needs to reduce carbon emissions, the aviation industry is essentially asking for permission for its emissions to grow.

Clouds on the horizon

Even if the airlines are yet to catch wind of such concerns, regulators are doing so. To date, the air industry has got off the regulatory hook fairly lightly. International air travel is exempt from carbon caps under the Kyoto protocol. Neither do airlines pay tax on fuel.

Lawmakers are understandably wary of disrupting aviation. Air travel represents a cash cow for governments. In the US, for example, the average tax on a $200 ticket is 26%, amounting to about $15bn a year. And the air travel industry picks up the tab for its own infrastructure, an annual bill of about $42bn, according to IATA.

But preoccupations about climate change are strengthening the resolve of regulators. Scrapping the ban on fuel taxes is on the agenda of many policymakers, for example. So too are carbon caps. The UK Climate Change Act, for example, anticipates integrating airlines into the country’s overall goal of reducing carbon emissions by 80% by 2050. But the government is yet to set a specific target for aviation and has angered environmentalists by approving the expansion of London’s Heathrow airport. At a European level, meanwhile, airlines are set to be included in the next phase of the European carbon emissions trading scheme from 2012. And when world leaders meet in Copenhagen in December, many will call for aviation to be included in a new global climate deal to replace the Kyoto protocol from the same date.

The stiff arm of the regulator is not the only climate-related business risk facing the industry. Flagship airlines rely heavily on executive travel to bolster their otherwise tight margins. Advances in video conferencing, coupled with the current financial crisis, are already threatening this market, warns Iain Watt, principal sustainability adviser at the environmental thinktank Forum for the Future.

“When you consider that the companies sending executives around the planet are themselves facing pressure to reduce their emissions, then that poses an additional risk to any airline that is reliant on business travel,” Watt says.

Consumer choices could also change as global warming becomes a more pressing public concern. Current research carried out by Forum for the Future shows that university students are concerned about the environment, but are as yet unprepared to sacrifice air travel.

Even so, airlines should not grow complacent, Watt argues. “In a world that does take climate change seriously, there’s going to be a whole range of unforeseen reactions in terms of what is socially acceptable,” he says.

Low-carbon take-off?

Leading airlines are responding. Only last month, the UK flagship airline British Airways announced plans to cut its carbon emissions in half by 2050. The move would see the company wipe 8m tonnes of the emissions off its net carbon balance sheet.

“Some people say that in economic times as desperately tough as these, we can afford to put climate change issues on one side. I could not disagree more,” said Willie Walsh, BA’s chief executive, at the end of January.

The company’s list of remedies includes investment in cleaner aircraft, improvements in fuel use and more efficient flight routings. BA says it has already improved its fuel efficiency by 28% since 1990. It has also saved 50,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide over the past two years by flying shorter, more direct international routes.

Welcome though BA’s commitment is, it represents more of the same rather than an industry breakthrough. BA’s competitors are following a similar track. Air France, for example, is currently swapping its eight Boeing 747-200 freighters for Boeing 777s, a move that should cut fuel consumption by almost one-third.

The upgrade forms part of a broader aircraft modernisation programme that is set to cost the French carrier almost $3bn a year until 2020. The Paris-based airline predicts fuel use dropping by up to a fifth in the next five years. In carbon emissions terms, that translates to a 15%-20% drop across all international flights.

Today’s modern aircraft consume, on average, 3.5 litres of fuel per 100 passenger kilometres – similar to a small car. Next generation aircraft, such as the Airbus A380 and Boeing 787, boast fuel efficiencies of below three litres per 100 passenger kilometres.

Mitigating emissions is not the whole story. Reducing costs has also concentrated airlines’ minds. When crude oil prices hit their all-time peak of almost $150 per barrel last year, the aviation industry proved what it was capable of when pushed.

“Fossil fuels are such a huge element of our costs that we don’t need external pressure to take action,” says Elfrieke van Galen, vice-president for corporate social responsibility at Dutch airline KLM.

Many airlines have introduced fees for luggage, while others scrapped unprofitable routes. Others simply flew more slowly. US companies American Airlines and Southwest Airlines took to scrubbing their jet engines to eliminate drag. All in an effort to save fuel.

Alternative fuels represent an ace in the industry’s pack, and Japan Airlines is not the only airline investigating their potential. Last July, BA announced a tie-up with UK engine maker Rolls-Royce to research low-carbon variants to the standard kerosene fuel.

Another airline with test flights already under its belt is Virgin Atlantic. In February 2008, the company flew a Boeing 747 from Heathrow to Amsterdam with a fuel mix based on coconut extract in one of its four engines. The same month, Airbus completed a successful experiment using a liquid fuel processed from gas to power its new A380 aircraft. Last month, Continental Airlines became the first US carrier to carry out a demonstration flight using a biofuel mix.

However, there is a long way still to go before such fuel alternatives become commercially viable, experts point out. A problematic public relations battle also awaits biofuel advocates. The world’s media has lambasted so-called “second generation fuels” in recent months for usurping land otherwise used for edible crops. “Greening” biofuels once again won’t be easy.

New flight plan

Changing tack, offering passengers the opportunity to offset the carbon impacts of their journeys is the most immediate and popular customer-driven solution for airlines.

In February, Japan Airlines rolled out a programme with the for-profit agency Recycle One to enable its passengers to offset the carbon their flights caused. Customers can use an online calculator to work out a total emissions figure based on factors such as distance of travel, aircraft type, baggage and passenger to cargo ratios. On this occasion, the move was not so groundbreaking – Continental, SAS, Air Canada, Qantas, BA, JetStar, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin America and other airlines offer similar programmes.

As with biofuels and new technology, carbon offsetting by no means offers a panacea. Environmental campaigners say the market is under-regulated and point to examples of offsetting projects that actually do little to cut emissions.

What is required is radical thinking about the way air travel works, climate change campaigners say. Greenpeace, for example, is calling for an end to domestic and other short-haul routes. Passengers should use the train instead, the environmental group argues.

“We’d very much welcome companies like British Airways becoming a transport company rather than an airline, and looking at how it could best transfer passengers around the country while emitting the least carbon as possible,” says James Turner, a spokesman for Greenpeace UK.

The notion of airlines as “integrated mobility firms” is still the stuff of thinktank whiteboards. Most aviation companies remain unwilling to overhaul their traditional business models. Thus UK airlines might express support for Heathrow airport becoming a national rail hub, but it is not an alternative to air travel that they have in mind; rather, it is a carbon-efficient means for airline passengers to arrive at the airport.

Air France, which recently merged with KLM, has hinted at how the sector may develop in a low-carbon future. Last year, the company announced that it was in preliminary discussions with French utility Veolia to replace some of its domestic flights with high-speed rail.

Different models

The move comes as Air France fights it out with rail company TGV for domestic passengers. The carbon benefits, while important, are a secondary issue, admits Air France spokeswoman Veronique Brachet. Nor will the change to rail happen overnight. “We need the rail market to open up first and that won’t happen until at least 2011 at the earliest,” Brachet says.

Other markets offer more possibilities. The shift to rail would be easier in the privatised UK network, for example, especially for a conglomerate such as the Virgin group that operates both planes and trains.

In the Netherlands, airlines and rail companies have a history of cooperation. Long before its merger, KLM had already cancelled several short-haul flights on routes where fast train links existed. Many of KLM’s international flights to Dutch cities also finish with a final leg by train.

All the same, IATA remains trenchant. Four-fifths of carbon emissions from air travel, it argues, are related to flights of over 1,500km. For such journeys, trains are an impracticable substitute for aircraft.

That’s as may be, but there is a vast opportunity awaiting the airline that is prepared to put its imagination to work and come up with the low-carbon travel options of tomorrow. People will always want to travel. Enabling them to do so without destroying the planet is the big challenge facing the aviation industry.

A binge-flying culture?

“Airlines are continually demanding more – more flights, more airports, more runways, more money and promoting a culture that’s more geared towards binge-flying, whatever the cost to the planet.”
Greenpeace UK

“I learnt two things. First, that the demands of the aviation industry are insatiable. Second, successive governments have usually given way to them. Although nowadays the industry pays lip-service to the notion of sustainability, its demands are essentially unchanged.”
Chris Mullin, former UK minister responsible for aviation

“We don’t expect big changes from the consumer side. Consumers are often very concerned, but we don’t see that translating into changing behaviour.”
Elfrieke van Galen, vice-president for corporate social responsibility, KLM

“The industry’s constant commitment to efficiency has kept us a small part of the big problem of climate change.”
Giovanni Bisignani, chief executive, the International Air Travel Association

In-flight statistics

  • The global aviation sector is estimated to be responsible for 2% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions.
  • By 2050, flying is predicted to account for between 5% and 6% of global greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Aviation’s emissions are projected to fall by 4.5% in 2009. More than half the drop will come from a reduction in flying because of the global financial crisis.
  • Reductions in fuel burn have saved 59m tonnes of carbon dioxide since 2004 and cut fuel costs by $12bn.
  • IATA members, as a whole, are committed to using 10% alternative fuels by 2017.

Source: International Air Travel Association (IATA), UN International Panel on Climate Change

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