By Scott Hamilton
Jan. 25, 2022, © Leeham News: The airline industry makes a splash about setting goals to become carbon neutral by a date certain. It also set a goal to reduce CO2 emissions in absolute terms by a date 30 years in the future after achieving carbon neutrality.
How will these lofty goals be achieved?
Using lightweight materials in airplanes, including composites. Improving aerodynamics. More fuel-efficient engines. There’s “great promise” in biofuels. Improving air traffic management.
Were these the big announcements by the International Air Transport Assn. at its annual general meeting in October in Boston?
These goals were outlined in a speech in June 2011 by Jim Albaugh, then-president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes (BAC) before the prestigious Royal Aeronautical Society (RAS).
The IATA AGM pronouncements went backward. Albaugh said in 2011 that the aviation industry’s goal of net-carbon neutrality was for 2020. IATA’s goal for achieving net carbon neutrality is 2050, the year Albaugh said was the goal to reduce CO2 emissions in absolute terms.
Looking back 10 years, going on 11, it’s fair to ask whether the commercial aviation industry has made much progress in reducing emissions or it’s just engaged in greenwashing?
Definition: Greenwashing is the process of conveying a false impression or providing misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sound. Greenwashing is considered an unsubstantiated claim to deceive consumers into believing that a company’s products are environmentally friendly. (Bold in the original.)
It’s both. But progress, looking back, seems excruciatingly slow.
“Meeting those goals will take technology and will also take new products,” Albaugh said in that 2011 speech. “Believe it or not, some 75% of the research and development that we do has an impact on the environmental footprint of our airplanes, whether that’s fuel efficiency, CO2, or noise. Over the last 50 years, we have reduced the CO2 emissions of our airplanes by 70%.”
Fifty years. And, if the industry meets IATA’s October 2021 target dates, another 29 years will have passed. But even then, the target of reducing CO2 emissions “in absolute terms” will be missed. Now, the goal is net-zero carbon by 2050.
“It’s good for the customers, it’s good for the passengers, it’s good for the environment, and it’s the right thing for us to do, to care about the environment or the world that we live in,” Albaugh told the RAS. “Our industry has set a goal for being carbon neutral by 2020, and also to reduce our CO2 emissions in absolute terms by 2050.”
“How are you going to do that? I think there are really five things that you have to work on,” Albaugh, who is an engineer, said. “One, lightweight materials in airplanes. You read that as composites. You have to continue to work on the aerodynamics of the airplane, and we think of some pretty exciting aerodynamic technology that we can apply to the next airplane that we build. You have to look at more fuel-efficient engines, and each of the three major engine companies we have working for us is doing just that. You also have to have a much more efficient air traffic management system than we have today. There’s also a great promise in biofuels.”
Albaugh called biofuels “one of the most exciting frontiers for our industry. This is jet fuel made from plants that don’t compete with food crops for land or water. The energy densities of these biofuels are some 50% to 80% less carbon, but also higher energy density. We’re working with many airlines as well as several countries on developing capabilities to do that.”
Biofuel testing was first approved in 2011. In the decade since, many airlines, along with Boeing and Airbus, have made demo flights and a few have used biofuels on passenger flights. But the obstacles to shifting to biofuels are huge. There is little in the way of production infrastructure. The lack of feedstock is a big supply issue. One major US airline said it could buy all the available biofuel available today and it would run the fleet for one day. And the cost: biofuels are four to eight times more expensive than jet fuel.
Making the airways more efficient has been a decades-long effort, with little progress because funding hasn’t been made available to the Federal Aviation Administration. But Albaugh also pointed to this as a requirement—as did IATA last October, when it said, “Governments and air navigation service providers (ANSPs) [need to eliminate] inefficiencies in air traffic management and airspace infrastructure.”
“Air traffic management provides a real opportunity for making airplanes more efficient,” Albaugh said. “My view is the next big transportation project that the US needs to embark on is a next-generation ATM system. I think it will provide the interstate highway system of the sky, and it will allow airplanes to fly more precise routes. It will also allow them to have much more efficient ascends and descends.”
Still, biofuels hold more promise than pie-in-the-sky pronouncements about battery-powered airplanes, hybrids with electric motors or even hydrogen-fueled aircraft and systems.
At its October AGM, IATA set milestones for achieving meaningful use of biofuels. Given the need for trillions of dollars in government support, even these milestones seem lofty bordering on wishful thinking. IATA’s Milestones:
The combination of measures needed to achieve net-zero emissions for aviation by 2050 will evolve over the course of the commitment based on the most cost-efficient technology available at any particular point in time. A base case scenario as follows is the current focus:
“SAF will fuel the majority of aviation’s global emissions mitigation in 2050. The recently announced US Grand challenge to increase the supply of SAF to 11 billion liters (3 billion gallons) by 2030 is a great example of the kinds of policies that will drive aviation sustainability,” IATA wrote. “Similarly, the announcements from several big energy suppliers that they intend to produce billions of extra liters of SAF in the near term are welcome. But we cannot tolerate announcements with no follow-up. To be meaningful, fuel suppliers must be accountable for delivering SAF at cost-competitive prices.
These and other goals were met with some skepticism by one of the leaders of the airline industry. Tim Clark, the president of Emirates Airline, summed it up neatly in one sentence” “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
The next article of this series will be an interview with Clark in which he details challenges as he sees them.