A change of flight plan

UK aerospace is leading the way to minimise the impact of aviation on climate change and is keen to work with its international counterparts to deliver long-term solutions, says Sally Howes.

I believe that delivering sustainable aviation is one of the biggest challenges the global aerospace industry has to meet. In the UK, aviation and the environment are high on the political agenda and the industry has become a target for environmental campaigners.

I think it is fair to say that for most of the past 30 years the main focus for environmental concern was the impact of aircraft noise and emissions on those living near increasingly busy airports. In the last few years that has changed and today the greatest challenge we face is minimising the impact aviation has on climate change.

The recent Stern report highlights the overwhelming scientific evidence for the risks associated with climate change and the need for an urgent global response. It says that aviation CO2 emissions currently account for less than two per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions and suggests this would rise to less than three per cent by 2050 under a business-as-usual scenario.

We know the government is committed to cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 60 per cent by 2050 and if overall global emissions are sharply reduced, then aviation’s proportion of total UK emissions is likely to be higher.

In addition there are a range of non-CO2 impacts, such as NOx emissions at cruising altitudes and the generation of condensation trails and aviation-induced cirrus clouds. Their precise implications remain uncertain, but industry is supporting initiatives to provide a better understanding of them to ensure they are addressed in the most appropriate way.

I think it is important to recognise that climate change is a long-term issue with global implications. Growth in demand in the UK and Europe poses threats, but these will be dwarfed by the expansion expected in China, India and Africa. So it is right that the UK and Europe takes a lead to combat climate change — but it is essential we also help to create international mechanisms and regulatory frameworks that support our efforts to minimise aviation’s impact across the world.

We would like to see an international emissions trading mechanism established. This would set a global limit on CO2 emissions, and allocate fixed allowances to individual companies, which would have to meet their limits through either improved energy efficiency or the purchase of carbon credits.

The European Commission has announced details of its proposals for the inclusion of aviation in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme. UK industry recognises that such a scheme, provided it is properly designed, could be the first step towards this broader ambition.

Industry also believes there are significant emissions benefits to be sought from more efficient air traffic operations. The Sustainable Aviation strategy highlights the significant environmental benefits of a continuous descent approach, not just from reduced fuel burn, but also less noise.

Looking further ahead, the integration of Europe’s fragmented air traffic management system could provide significant environmental benefits. Air traffic management (ATM) can reduce aviation’s environmental impact by allowing air traffic to fly more directly and at more fuel-efficient flight levels, which will reduce fuel consumption and emissions.

A more sustainable future will also require a step-change in aerospace technology.

We have some good examples of the progress we are making. The new Boeing 747-800 will emit 15 per cent less CO2 than its predecessor, while being 30 per cent quieter. The Airbus A380 has NOx emissions 31 per cent lower than the current stringent ICAO limits. The aircraft has enabled further aerodynamic improvements to be realised with a noise footprint of half that of the Boeing 747-200. The Rolls-Royce Trent 900 engine which powers the A380 represents the world’s cleanest large turbofan engine and includes a new generation ‘swept’ fan blade design constructed of titanium. This features a scimitar-shaped leading edge for lower noise and greater aerodynamic efficiency. Further improvements in performance are anticipated for the Trent 1000 and Trent XWB engines, powering the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350 XWB respectively.

But the advent of new technologies, in particular composites, brings its own challenges when aircraft come to the end of their lives. Manufacturers are already examining how best to decommission and recycle aircraft, including the re-use of composites.

Responsible aerospace companies are not just considering the environmental impact of their products, but also their operations. Rolls-Royce and Airbus have both invested heavily in environmental management systems (EMS). SBAC, as part of the Sustainable Aviation strategy, is working to encourage suppliers to implement environmental management systems. We believe that good environmental practice is essential for all companies in the aerospace supply chain.

One issue UK industry is clear on is that increased taxation, whether we call it air passenger duty (APD) or environmental charges, is not a good mechanism for achieving environmental improvement. An increase in APD will have little if any impact on an airline’s operations or choice of aircraft.

If aviation is to be truly sustainable, environmental concerns must be seen in the wider context of the economic and social benefits our industry brings.

UK aerospace is taking a lead on sustainability and wants to work with its international counterparts to deliver long-term solutions. There is much work to do, but through emissions trading, operational improvements and technological development we can minimise the impact of aviation on the environment and ensure that its benefits can continue to be enjoyed in the developed and developing world.

Edited extracts of a speech given by Dr Sally Howes, director-general of the Society of British Aerospace Companies (SBAC), at last month’s UK/Japan technology forum