“Don’t delude the public” on environmental advances in aviation

 By Scott Hamilton

Jan. 26, 2022, © Leeham News: The International Air Transport Assn’s Annual General Meeting in Boston last October focused on industry progress and goals toward a greener environment.

Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airline. Photo Credit: ET Travel World News.

In a fanfare series of panels and announcements, IATA set a goal of industrial carbon neutrality by 2050. But in reality, this was a step backwards from a goal described in 2011 by Jim Albaugh, then-president of Boeing Commercial Airplanes. Albaugh made his remarks in a speech before the Royal Aeronautical Society.

At the IATA AGM, Tim Clark, president of Emirates Airline, cautioned the industry: “Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”

LNA spoke with Clark this month, who expanded on his IATA appearance.

“Don’t delude the public”

“2050 carbon neutrality, if we can get there and we can achieve it, that’d be excellent. It gives us the best part of 30 years to get there,” Clark said. “My main concern was the overpromise that is perhaps not deluding but misinforming the general public about what’s actually going on.”

The United Nations last fall adopted what’s called COP 26, a plan to address climate change for the balance of this decade.

“We’ve had COP 26 recently, we’ve had major governmental initiatives try and get this climate change and the environmental issues onto a common platform, and that’s where, of course, it doesn’t really get there at the moment. There’s a lot of talk about it, but walking the talk is something else,” Clark said.

“My concerns were that in the aviation field, one, that the aviation field has been absolutely slaughtered [by COVID] in the last two years. What the aviation industry is facing at the moment is a fight for its own survival. There seems to be no acknowledgment. In the last two years, the aviation industry has been running about 10% or 15% of its environmental footprint probably of 10 or 15 years ago. That’s put aside. At the moment, we’re all trying to make our way in an extremely challenging economic environment for the reasons that we know,” he said.

Clark noted that there doesn’t seem to be any acknowledgment that the amount of the emissions that have come from the aviation industry over the last two years since this pandemic took place is airbrushed from the narrative.

“I know that some carriers, some great and good carriers are on the verge of complete bankruptcy on the basis of they just can’t get their operations going for reasons of border closures after the virus pandemic.

Prior to the pandemic, he said, the aviation industry was working particularly hard to reduce its impact on the environment. The industry already recognized the criticality of the emissions footprint of the business. It was trying to find a way that recognized the simple laws of physics with regard to principles of flight and moving large payloads in aircraft across large distances.

Greater achievements than other industries

The airline industry has done more in the last 30, 40, and 50 years than the automotive and maritime industries had done, Clark said.

“In terms of the aerospace technological advances, both in airframe and propulsion,  the aircraft today are 50% more fuel-efficient than the equivalent 30 years ago,” he said. There is a better understanding of aerodynamics. “You can see wing design, you can see things like the winglets on the Boeing MAX aircraft and on the Airbus A320. There are significant inroads that have been made, not only in the aircraft themselves but in the upstream side of things.

“The manufacturers are constantly reducing their footprint with regard to emissions on manufacture. Taken together, it’s been quite a successful story. It didn’t seem to resonate with large elements of the environmental community if you get my drift. That’s probably a result of poor messaging from our business, slightly dysfunctional, dislocated, but nevertheless, it is a good story.”

Latest state of the art

Clark said that propulsion, as it stands today, whether large jet engines or the smaller ones powering, the 320s or the 737s, are the, are the latest state of the art. “Can we extract more out of those? No, probably not. If you get another 5% improvement in fuel efficiency, thrust, and the environmental footprint, that will be significantly good, but beyond that, I’m not sure we’ll be able to do it.

“Then you turn to what is the primary source of propulsion in terms of the fuel element and that, of course, is JP-1 kerosene, which is but the lowest end of the  process in the refining side of things, but it drives a whole aviation industry.”

Clark said that “whether you’re going to introduce sustainable aviation fuels, where you now accept that you’re going to have to obtain different sources of material for this particular fuel, whether it be waste, whether it be oils, greases, etc., but the scaling of that business to what some people hope by the end of this decade will be 10% of the forecast fuel consumption of the airline industry is probably about 50, 55 million tons in the next eight or nine years.

That will require “herculean” investment in both the plant and the processes, Clark said. “The cost of doing that and the cost of interplaying for the aviation community currently stand about four or five times the cost of fuel that we uplift today. The ability to go beyond that, in my view, is probably not achievable.”

Is IATA greenwashing?

Given the changing timeline to that which Albaugh referred to in 2011 and which IATA adopted in October, the obvious question becomes: was IATA hyping or greenwashing on behalf of the industry? Clark doesn’t think so.

“No, I don’t think it’s greenwashing. It’s aspirational. Everybody will admit that the aviation industry is not an industry that actually enmeshes itself deeply in technology. We rely on the technology leaders to do this, whether this is aerospace, power and utilities, manufacturing, automotive, you name it. The aspirations were that technology would lead us to a point where we could employ other sources of power: hydrogen, power-to-liquid, you name it, on the one hand, and on the other, there would be significant inroads into things like carbon capture, again, led by technology, led by entities, primarily government,” he said.

“The problem is that these involve massive investments. We’re talking trillions on trillions of dollars to shift the global economy from where it was, fossil fuel-based, to the new paradigm of sustainability and alternate fuels. That transition, in my view, is going to take longer than people are led to believe. I’m not saying it won’t happen. The overpromise element of that suggests that. Some leaders in politics have suggested there will be electric-powered airplanes flying from London to Los Angeles with electric jets.”

Clark said the general public is used to the Teslas of the world and the rapid advances in battery-powered things. As a result, there is a view that it’s an easy transition to move into batteries onto airplanes or ships.

“Well, clearly, it’s not, and the notion that you can cross over, but in people’s minds, it looks as though if a table has got four legs and a cow has got four legs, the table is, in fact, a cow. It’s this dot-linking that worries me and from that becomes an expectation delivered by overpromising or miscommunicating,” he said.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel

Albaugh said, in 2011, that Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) had the greatest promise for reducing emissions. Boeing’s current CEO, David Calhoun, agrees that SAF is a more promising solution and that the company’s airplanes will be 100% SAF-capable by 2030. Shifting to hydrogen power, a goal Airbus is pursuing, won’t happen for a couple of more decades, Boeing believes.

Clark notes that today SAF accounts for .0001% of the uplift.

“Since the Royal Aeronautical Society presentation of Jim in 2011, we’re now into nine or 10 years now since he made those statements. We haven’t gotten any further than .0001%. Don’t forget automotive is 18% of the toxicity of the environment in terms of what these cars were chucking out, the big old engines that we used to drive,” he said.

Batteries have challenges

The hype of battery-powered airplane propulsion is not an easy solution. Many ignore some of the realities of batteries as an alternative energy source.

“You’ve got to face the reality that all lithium batteries have a finite life and they’re extremely difficult to get rid of. You can recycle lithium batteries, but it takes about 3,000 lithium batteries recycled to produce three normal batteries. What do you do with these vast numbers of lithium batteries? Where do they go into storage? You can’t just dump them in the sea. Where do they go?” he asked.

“Equally, as the world begins to embrace the reality that if you really want to move through this transition phase at pace, what you need to do is accept that nuclear is probably the smartest and quickest way to go. This is something that Rolls-Royce is talking about, Airbus has been talking about, in the sense that not for powering aircraft, but simply the nation requirements for power would have to come from multiple smaller modules of nuclear plants dotted around the coastlines of the countries that they’re in rather than have two or three big reactors.”

There are moral grounds

Clark paints a bleak picture in some ways. But he remains optimistic significant progress can be made.

“One has to recognize that the West and the OECD countries must lead. They must lead in technology, they must lead by example and show how it can be done, and give the developing world a chance to perhaps catch up or help them get involved in all of this. This is the moral ground of what I’m saying. I’m not pessimistic,” Clark said. “I don’t want everybody to race into a belief that we are going to have super aeroplanes flying around on just about nothing at all, hydrogen and one thing or another, in the next 5, 10, 15 years. That’s not going to happen. That’s only the messaging.”

What’s going to happen by 2050?

“The focus is on getting there. What IATA has said is that “We can’t do this alone, governments must lead, technology must lead, the big players in technology have got to lead.” When I talk to the big players, they say, “That’s all very well, but who’s going to fund us? Is it going to be government?

“The governments are now beset with virus problems over the last two years, borrowing madly, printing money madly. How are they going to step up with the trillions of dollars required for the investment to scale the sustainability elements to get to where we want to be in 2050? That’s the vexing question, that’s all. That’s why I say be careful about overpromising and the timing of that.”

32 Comments on ““Don’t delude the public” on environmental advances in aviation

  1. Very interesting, BS-free interview with a man who has both feet squarely on the ground. Excellent that he draws clear attention to three issues:
    – Under-appreciation of the huge (and ongoing) achievements already booked by aviation compared to other sectors vis-à-vis emissions reduction. The same point was amplified last week in Bjorn’s series.
    – The great clash between an idealistic (but impractical) green movement and a realistic (but unpopular) engineering movement. The “cow and table” analogy was a good one — reveals the fallacies that often underlie the many simplistic assumptions made by activists.
    – The inevitable need to embrace nuclear power. He referred to one new technology (Small Modular Reactors), but omitted to mention (even more important) Thorium salt reactors. Unfortunately, highly-entrenched and severely-outdated views in the environmental movement will impede the rollout of such technology.

  2. I am glad to hear Tim sharing what we know all but don’t want to say loud.

    SAF and electrical are not viable, yet this is aspirational.

    • Glad he referred to the EOL problem with batteries.
      All sorts of nice “paper” ideas floating around with regard to recycling, but practical/viable measures are a very different matter.

      An analogy: returned webshop clothing and unsold seasonal clothing in “the west” is all reused/recycled in a responsible manner, right?
      “Chile’s desert dumping ground for fast fashion leftovers”

      One wonders where the first mountains of old EV batteries are going to appear.

  3. Airlines have no influence. They buy the latest, most economical aircraft and meet demand/ shareholder growth demand. In between lines Clark says so.

    It seems only centralized, rich, autocratic governments can push through these huge changes, for good or bad. E.g. China highspeed railways. Forceful, determined, undemocratic. https://i.ytimg.com/vi/belm4kDAHgM/maxresdefault.jpg

    • Chinas rail expansion is driven not so much by the totalitarian powers of its Government but by the huge number of closely spaced 4-20 million cities that make it economically viable to connect by rail. These conditions simply don’t exist as commonly in the USA or Europe. Japan did a superb job on VFT, they did so because they make a profit.

      Admittedly the totalitarian government of China can resume land at the stroke of a pen thus saving about 15% of the costs and a vast amount of time.

      Just some background on this. China under Mao pushed through policies to drive up population growth in the 1950s to increase the workforce and military. This lead to vast overpopulation which lead to enforcement of single child polices that sometimes involved forced abortions to reverse the over population the Government had created. In between we had an industrial and agricultural policy that lead to the famine of nearly 40 million people. This was followed by cultural revolutions that was a form of cancel culture to erase history and change culture by shaming, terrorising, imprisoning and executing people. Id rather think the people that ran Taiwan would have done a much better job without all the murder in between.

      The rest of the world will need to fly. That’s OK, they didn’t over populate and so use less resources.

      I have a feeling the USA will eventually implement technologies that will make VFT look decidedly second rate and expensive.

  4. Impressed with how plain-spoken this was, no pun intended.

    What sticks out to me is “3000 lithium batteries recycled to produce 3 normal batteries.” That’s 0.1%. I wonder if he’s referring to a specific battery chemistry or recovery process, or where did that figure came from? I know some lithium battery types can be nearly 100%, whether it’s cost-effective is another question.

  5. The paradox is that the improvement in fuel efficiency made air travel viable on more routes for less wealthy people. Simply improving conventional aircraft further will continue this trend.
    Since truly green technologies like LH2 powered aircraft are a far
    away and have performance limits (quickly increasing dead weight fraction from tanks if you increase range) and SAF isn’t available sufficiently
    without undesirable competition to food production, there won’t be green air travel anytime soon.
    Therefore, it is necessary to include all the externalised costs (greenhouse gases, pollution and noise) via taxes on fuel and landing rights. This way air travel becomes less competitive and will hopefully shrink or at least stagnate.
    (this comes from someone who holds Airbus stock)
    A flight Frankfurt-Dubai and return consumes almost twice the yearly CO2 budget for the average human. Air travel must return to (for the rich countries) or remain (for the upstarts in the emerging economies) a luxury reserved for honeymoon and important personnel (specialists, management, scientists) who absolutely have to travel.

    • “Therefore, it is necessary to include all the externalised costs (greenhouse gases, pollution and noise) via taxes on fuel and landing rights. This way air travel becomes less competitive and will hopefully shrink or at least stagnate.
      (this comes from someone who holds Airbus stock)”

      To keep the playing field level: for ground-based travel, don’t forget to similarly include the externalized costs for all that road/rail infrastructure on the ground.
      Do the same for concrete/steel production, and agriculture.
      Everything will then become un-affordable –not just air travel.


      “A flight Frankfurt-Dubai and return consumes almost twice the yearly CO2 budget for the average human”

      Using a single-occupancy average car to do a daily 75km home-work commute for 48 weeks a year produces as much CO2 as 5 round-trip air trips from Frankfurt-Sydney. Therefore, do you also wish to label car travel as a luxury?

    • I suspect the real reason for the romance with Liquid Hydrogen is that the fuel can be ‘blue hydrogen’. Australia has commenced commercial exports of liquid hydrogen to Japan. The hydrogen is made out of Brown Coal. The CO2 by-product is then piped offshore and pumped down into oil wells.

      It’s going to be a lot cheaper than hydrogen from wind power driven electrolysis of water.

    • The C02 emission on a Wizz Air A321neo are 57 grams per km per passenger at Wizz typical load factors. In fuel terms it is just under 2L/100km or 18 grams/km per passenger. The distance FRA->DUB is 4832km so its under 96.5L fuel, say 100L of fuel allowing a little extra for headwinds and hold.

      A small hatchback has a fuel tank capacity of about 60 Litres and most cars would use a tank every week. I can’t see that the statement “That the flight is 6 months of average CO2 budget” makes any sense when electricity, agriculture and industrial production emissions are counted. Its probably an unqualified number but it sounds a little like green panic numerical exaggeration or misfactoid?

      If you are factoring in hunter gatherer yamato indians in the Amazon or subsistence farmers using oxen drawn ploughs in warn torn parts of Africa that might be right but they do tend to end up in famines every few years.

      If the industry gets to 65% SAF and improves fuel burn by 30% by 2050 the emissions would have more than halved (down to about 45%)

      Obviously 65% SAF can’t be far from 100% which would get us to nett zero.

  6. Yes, I believe that externalised costs need to be included in many more product classes, including other forms of travel. This will necessarily change relative price levels of different product categories and induce changes in lifestyle and consumption.

    The difference between air travel and individual mobility or trains is that the latter have a plausible way to low CO2 emissions with the technology available during the next 15 years. Therefore, they can grow while reducing their environmental impact.

    • Alternatively: aviation already beats the socks off of many other modes of transport in terms of fuel economy, so it can grow while others try to get their fuel economy up to par.

      • Indeed. Trains are not more efficient except in the extreme case of highly dense (multi million plus) high population cities. The environmental and energy cost of building the massive infrastructure such as viaduct, tunnel and rail is a negative.

        • The difference again, is that the land based activities of manufacturing and construction already have means of decarbonisation available that are plausibly economically viable. For example, the main cost of rail construction, by far, is land acquisition; so the cost of steel and concrete is marginal, so it wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference to the business case if the cost for these commodities doubled in order to decarbonise. The same cannot be said for operational energy use for any mode of transport.

        • The difference again, is that the activities of manufacturing and construction already have means of decarbonisation available that are plausibly economically viable. For example, the main cost of rail construction, by far, is land acquisition; so the cost of steel and concrete is marginal, so it wouldn’t make a whole lot of difference to the business case if the cost for these commodities doubled in order to decarbonise. The same cannot be said for operational energy use for any mode of transport.

      • @Bryce: That’s true in the USA but only due to a very poor and underutilized passenger rail service. It’s not true at all in regions like Asia or Europe that have invested heavily in electrified high speed rail, and have high utilization by consequence. According to the EU rail has about 3x the fuel efficiency of flying, even when accounting for load factor. Aviation has a big challenge to compete here.

  7. I thought that two stroke engines and large ships burning oil were big polluters. How does aviation look on the pie chart compared to those two?
    I’m not convinced air travel really matters unless the same restrictions are placed on bigger polluters and energy users like auto commuting and building heating and cooling.

    • Low speed 2 stroke diesels are probably the most efficient engines known to mankind. Thermal efficiencies of 58%. They can run of Ammonia not just diesel. Man is actually promising to deliver engines in about 2 years.

      The development of RCCI 4 stroke piston engines is demonstrating 55% efficiency with 50% efficiency showing up in formulae 1 (we don’t really know since its secret).

  8. There might become standards that commercial aircraft can only fly if they meet USG/seat mile numbers and load factors. Hence EK might need to fit their A380’s with 715 seats and reengine with new engines to be allowed to land in the EU and later US. There might come similar requirements on cargo aircrafts foring them to only fly th most moden ones. Driving efficiency towards best in class is better than stop flying. Still Sir Tim’s top boss is pretty heavy into oil and gas and would not like to hear that that revenue stream is disappearing quickly (as some of his wives has). To be fair UAE is investing alot to survive after the oil and gas is gone.

    • The rule for ICAO CORISA member states doesn’t quite work that way. It is only aircraft built after January 1 2o28 that will be “illegal”. Earlier build aircraft can be flown (even if they have high emissions) but their higher emissions will exact a penalty. The airline will need to limit flights, buy a higher grade of SAF or pay for offsets. This will motivate them to fly efficient aircraft and retire older less efficient.

      • FedEx still having and I assume flyging DC-10-30F (called MD-10 after conversion to 2 pilot cockpits) and MD-11’s and sizeable Airbus and Boeing fleets powered with CF6-80C2 engines. I like the -80C2 but there are more efficient engines out there today burning less JET-A. UPS flies similar generation aircrafts including the MD-11’s. Both should have the cash by now to buy 777F and A350F’s (besides converting 777’s and A330’s)

        • I suspect that by 2924 things will be very certain with the B777XF and A350F and they will then plan their fleet renewal.

    • Higher seating density won’t work for airlines like Emirates, since they already generate most of their revenue from higher priced passengers in low density seating. And more seats just means more tickets to sell, making it very difficult to achieve any required high load factor. Budget airlines already achieve high density and load factor, but their addressable market will be highly sensitive to fare rises due to low-carbon fuel costs. So it’s difficult to see any current airline business model that works in a net-zero world; STC at least has the honesty to admit this.

  9. “Don’t delude the public”

    …it’s far, far too late for that hope.

  10. The battery recycling comment underlines that in much of this interview he’s heading off into areas he isn’t particularly well informed on.

    I expect people like https://www.redwoodmaterials.com/about could inform him of how much of a lithium ion battery is recyclable, around 95%.

    The principle issue for L-Ion recovery is that the volume of new production has typically outpaced the end of life batteries by an order of magnitude and until mass produced BEVs most batteries were made in a wide range of form factors and chemistries.

    We are still around 10 years away from 1 million BEVs needing to be recycled in one year, of course by then BEV production is likely to be in the 50-100 million zone

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