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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.”