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.