Air Transportation Industry Attempts to Limit Carbon Emissions

Sustainable fuels can move the air transportation sector closer to industry goals to fight against climate change. Even partially replacing jet fuel with sustainable biofuels can make an impact. So, too, can a series of commonsense practices like lighter, more fuel-efficient aircraft, optimized flight plans, or turning off jet engines while on the tarmac.

These are some of the options outlined by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which convened a panel of experts on Wednesday and Thursday in Montreal to address the dilemma.

air transportation

The ICAO brainstorming is part of the aviation industry’s announcement that it is the first commercial sector to commit to to limit carbon emissions within 20 years. The industry contributes 2 percent to human-made CO2 emissions, with 80 per cent of these from flights of over 1,500 km. / 900 mi. for which there are not practical alternative transportation options. The move to a reduced carbon air transport system will require widespread adoption of low carbon alternative fuels in comparison to jet fuels produced from petroleum. As air transport demand grows, performance must also continue improving.

The ultimate goal is to manufacture a fuel-equivalent to jet fuel from biomass. Sources such as starches, seaweed, sugars, oils, and lignocellulose (which is plant dry matter, the most abundantly available raw material on the Earth for the production of biofuels) are possibilities.

But those plants-as-fuel sources still are under development or are at an early stage of industrial production. “It’s very urgent to develop these alternative fuels,” said Michel Wachenheim of the International Coordinating Council of Aerospace Industries Associations (ICCAIA). “There is no reason to be satisfied with the situation.”

Difficult as it will be to transition to mass adoption of biofuels, 25 airlines in 2017 will operate more than 5,000 flights using jet fuel mixed with sustainable alternative fuels — up to 50 per cent in the case of hydro-treated oils — on a trial basis.

Nate Brown, in charge of the US Federal Aviation Administration’s alternative jet fuel initiative, said more work needs to be done before reaching large-scale production. Alternative fuels must provide a reliable supply, proven environmental benefits, equivalent safety performance, and comparable costs to conventional jet fuel. That last part will be especially difficult, as low crude prices over the last few years have left some energy companies disinterested in investment costs necessary for biofuel stability.

Incentives from political realms can assist the shift to alternative fuels, too, as a central economic and environmental issue. By cooperating at the federal level, institutions can push agendas that elicit extensive public consultation. By cooperating and reaching strong agreements, governments can documents like an Energy Policy Agenda and Report, which would be regarded as a contribution to the ongoing international energy dialogue and assist in the manufacture of more alternative fuels, such as those the aviation industry seeks.

What else is happening in R&D to produce more efficient air transportation?

  • British Airways has partnered with Washington, D.C.-based Solena Fuels to make 50,000 metric tons of jet fuel from municipal solid waste per year. It is the first project in the world to attempt to convert trash into a drop-in fuel for airplanes.
  • Pratt & Whitney is working to produce the PurePower® Geared Turbofan™ engine family, a product line developed to provide more eco-conscious solutions for the airline industry.
  • Airbus teamed with Virgin Australia Airlines to support the cultivating of eucalyptus in Australia, while in Spain, the company is supporting the development of 2,000 hectares of camelina for aviation fuel. Additionally, Airbus is endorsing an initiative in Qatar to transform micro-algae into a sustainable source.
  • United Airlines has pledged it will have a lower gross carbon footprint in 2017 than its two main U.S. rivals, Delta and American, as part of its 2017 Global Performance Commitment to corporate account customers. The commitment comes as United was named Eco-Airline of the Year by Air Transport World (ATW) magazine for its environmental leadership.
  • In 2017, Southwest will become the launch customer for the new Boeing 737 MAX aircraft, which will offer an estimated 20 percent fuel efficiency increase over the 737 Classic Fleet. Along with modernizing its fleet, Southwest Airlines has invested more than $550 million over the past decade in fuel saving projects such as addition of winglets, engine upgrades, engine washes, use of ground power for aircraft at airport gates, and more efficient control of aircraft ground idle speeds.
  • Within UPS Airlines, 84 percent of the fleet already meets the category “CAEP 6 and CAEP 8” standards guidelines for nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions limits published by ICAO’s Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP).

Photo credit: josephdepalma via / CC BY


Carolyn Fortuna

Carolyn grew up in Stafford Springs, CT, home of the half-mile tar racetrack. She's an avid Formula One fan (this year's trip to the Monza race was memorable). With a Ph.D. from URI, she draws upon digital media literacy and learning to spread the word about sustainability issues. Please follow me on Twitter and Facebook and Google+