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High-flying ambition, but short of a plan

Technology usually gives us plenty to be optimistic about when it comes to tackling climate change. Even in aviation, where aircraft pump out millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide every year, researchers are working hard on improving efficiency at every aspect of design and operation.

The problem is that the way things are going this won’t actually bring emissions down from current levels.

The first Green Aviation Symposium, held yesterday at Imperial College London, saw major international companies – including Airbus, Rolls-Royce and BA – detail their strategies for making massive reductions to their projected carbon output.

Alongside more efficient route planning and air traffic control systems, engineering plays a huge role in their proposals and numerous technologies are in the pipeline – many of which The Engineer has written about in detail.

Of course there are lighter materials and more efficient engine designs, but there are also innovations such as wings that change shape and dimples that can appear on a plane’s surface to reduce drag.

Airbus has been experimenting with hydrogen fuel cells as a more environmentally friendly way of providing auxiliary power and producing water. BA is excited by the prospect of biofuels and plan to build a plant in London to convert 500,000 tonnes of household waste a year into 16 million gallons of fuel.

If all goes according to plan, these companies say they could reduce their future emissions by as much as two-thirds by 2050. The problem is that the projected growth in air travel means if they did nothing their carbon dioxide levels would triple in the same time.

While the aviation industry should be applauded for their commitment to research and innovation and the money they are investing, the reality is that, for all the hard work, total emissions look set to be no less than in 2050 than they are today.

The proposed solution from BA is carbon offsetting. Buying more credits through the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme (ETS) – in which airlines will be included from 2012 – will mean money is invested in helping other industries to reduce their own emissions.

While many agree the ETS has potential if it is done correctly, it can’t be a long-term solution if the goal is an overall cut in total global carbon emissions. Once other companies have reduced their carbon footprints, how will the airlines continue to offset at sufficient levels?

BA’s CEO, Willie Walsh, himself recognised at yesterday’s event that while aviation only accounts for 2 per cent of global emissions now, that number is set to rise as other sources of carbon dioxide are cut.

Reducing the impact per passenger kilometre isn’t good enough. The aviation industry needs a long-term plan for how it will cut absolute levels of CO2.

It’s a major challenge admittedly and further improvements will be increasingly difficult to come by. But given what we’ve already achieved (70 per cent increase in fuel burn efficiency since the 1960s) and what we already believe is possible in the next 40 years, we shouldn’t give up on our ambition.

Readers' comments (4)

  • Engineering skills will hold aircraft emissions, per passenger kilometre, level by 2050. But in actual fact, the sheer cost of reducing emissions using these skills and by using renewables, will drain so much money out of economies, that human activity will reduce. This in turn will cause degrowth; ie a reduction in global GDP. Since GDP and CO2 emissions are roughly related, overall emissions will decline. GDP will gradually be replaced by Gross Domestic Happiness as a result.

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  • The human activity should not cost so much but does because our resources are mismanaged & sloppy to the point of decay.. with monopolies over ruling of course.

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  • 1st a Question BA converting 1/2 Million tonnes of waste into 16 Million Gals of Jet fuel OR roughly 100 Million tonnes of Jet Fuel meaning 1 lb of waste makes 200 pounds of Jet Fuel - please verify if this is right.

    I have confidence in human tech ingenuity - we can definitely make aviation more fuel efficient AND we can also re-organize short to medium distance high density air travel into a more efficient CO2 per person transported by employing more flexible distributed traffic management approaches with the more fuel efficient airplanes/engines.

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  • Re: BA converting 1/2 Million tonnes of waste into 16 Million Gals of Jet fuel OR roughly 100 Million tonnes of Jet Fuel.

    This would suggest 1 gallon of jet fuel wieighs over 6 tonnes! Slight error there I think.

    In UK numbers, one gallon of fuel weighs about 8 pounds, so 16 million would weigh 100 million pounds which is about 45500 tonnes. I suggest this is a bit more likely!

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