In April, leaders from across the global aviation industry – associations, aircraft manufacturers, engine manufacturers, airlines, airport companies, and air traffic control providers – affirmed their and their companies’ and organisations’ commitment to combating global climate change. They did so in a document entitled ‘Aviation Industry Commitment to Action on Climate Change’.

“As leaders of the aviation industry,” it states, “we recognise our environmental responsibilities . . . . Therefore, we, the undersigned aviation industry companies and organisations, declare that we are committed to a pathway to carbon-neutral growth and aspire to a carbon-free future . . . . We urge all governments to participate . . . . Our efforts and commitment to work in partnership with governments, other industries and representatives of civil society will provide meaningful benefits on tackling climate change and other environmental challenges. We strongly encourage others to join us in this endeavour.”

Among the signatories to the declaration were all the big four Western commercial aircraft manufacturers – Airbus, Boeing, Bombardier and Embraer – as well as the major Western aero-engine makers – CFM International (a joint venture between General Electric, of the US, and France’s Snecma, part of the Safran group), General Electric, Pratt & Whitney and Rolls-Royce.

In the commitment, the industry assures that, in accordance with the fourfold strategy unanimously adopted at the 2007 Assembly of the International Civil Aviation Organisation (Icao), it will pursue the development and deployment of new technologies, including cleaner fuels; further improve aircraft fuel efficiency, the way aircraft are flown, and the management of ground operations; improve airport infrastructure, air traffic management and air routes; and institute “positive economic instruments” for the reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions, “wherever they are cost effective”.

But governments also have to do their part. The aviation industry companies and associations urge governments to support and help finance research and development (R&D) into greener, breakthrough tech- nologies; to urgently act to improve the design of their airspace use, including such matters as allocation of airspace to civil and military flying, improvement of air traffic control infrastructure, and better procedures for approving necessary airport improvements; and to develop and apply a global emissions management framework for aviation, through Icao, that is equitable and stable, and in agreement with the United Nations (UN) road map adopted in Bali, Indonesia, in December 2007.

To sum up, the industry promises to “build on the strong track record of technological progress and innovation that has made our industry the safest and most efficient transport mode; and accelerate action to mitigate our environmental impact, especially with respect to climate change, while preserving our driving role in the sustainable development of our global society.”

Global Aviation

The global civil aviation industry is estimated to contribute 8% of the world’s gross domestic product (GDP), or $3,5- trillion. The industry includes 2 092 airlines, with a total fleet of almost 23 000 aircraft. These airlines carry more than 2,2-billion people a year – 40% of international tourists now travel by air – to and from 3 754 airports, over a route network of several million kilometres, and managed by some 160 air traffic management agencies.

Air transport companies pay more than $40-billion a year for the use of civil aviation infrastructure – air traffic management and airports – through various specific fees (air traffic control, landing and passenger fees), as well as paying substantial taxes. They also generate 32-million direct, indirect, and induced jobs across the planet. This figure is split into 14,7-million direct, indirect, and induced jobs, and 17,1-million direct and indirect jobs created as a result of the catalytic impact of airlines on tourism, a figure that includes about 6,7-million tourism jobs directly supported by inter- national tourists travelling by air.
In Europe alone, over 7,5-million jobs depend on civil aviation.

Airfreight carries 40% (by value) of interregional exports, while 25% of all companies’ sales depend on airfreight, and 70% of all enterprises state the key benefit of using air transport is access to a larger market. It is airfreight which allows, for example, Kenyan peasant farmers to sell their fresh vegetables in European (and South African) markets.

Being a capital-intensive sector, productivity for each worker is very high in aviation, being 250% greater than the average for other industries. In addition, there is aviation’s less quantifi-able benefits, such as its social and develop- mental role in remote places, which are difficult – if not impossible – to access by alternative forms of transport: places like the Canadian and Siberian tundra, the Australian outback, the Amazonian rain forest, the Papua New Guinea interior, and so on.

The importance of aviation to humanity is shown by the sector’s high growth rate. The average annual growth in passenger air traffic is 4,9%. Since at least 1970, air traffic (measured in route passenger kilometres – RPKs) has doubled every 15 years, and Airbus expects it to double again over the next 15 years.

The driving forces behind this coming growth are Asia, in general, and China, in particular, as well as the growth in Middle East passenger and freight hubs, and the global growth in the number of megacities. Asia, in general, is marked by increasing development, wealth, accelerating deregulation of the air transport, and increasing numbers of low-cost airlines.

China itself is displaying a high growth rate both in domestic and international air travel.
Measured in RPKs, Asian air traffic is growing by 6,1% a year, while in Europe it is growing at 4,5%, and in North America by 3,5%. In 2006, Asia accounted for 25% of all air traffic, but this is forecast to increase to 31% by 2026. Europe was responsible for 29%, and North America for 31%, in 2006, predicted to fall to 27% and 24% respectively by 2026.

Regarding megacities – defined as cities with a population of ten-million people or more – there were four of these in 1970, there are 26 of them today, and there will be 33 of them by 2015. Add to these those cities that are smaller but can be described as “global cities” (such as London, with a population below eight-million) and you find a list of 32 metropolises (including Johannesburg) that account for 77% of passenger air traffic. In fact, 64% of global air traffic goes through just 93 airports. “You can’t have world GDP growth without world aviation growth,” highlights Airbus COO: Customers John Leahy.

In terms of its environmental impact, aviation affects the climate through its emissions.
The industry’s main emissions are carbon dioxide (CO2), water vapour (H2O) and nitrogen oxides (NOx). Aircraft also generate noise and consume fuel – and CO2 emissions are directly proportional to the amount of fuel burnt – and there is also the question of their disposal at the end of their lives. In addition, the process of manufacturing aircraft has its own environmental footprint.

According to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, aviation accounts for 2% of global CO2 emissions (but, to reiterate, 8% of global GDP), and this could increase to 3% by 2050. The October 2006 ‘Stern Report’ by Sir Nicholas Stern, commissioned and endorsed by the UK government, states that all forms of transport combined are responsible for 14% of such emissions; agriculture and industry also account for 14% each, power generation for 24%, ‘land use’ for 18%, buildings for 8%, ‘other energy related’ for 5%, and waste for 3%. In terms of land use, airport infrastructure occupies only 1% of the land used for transport systems, while railways take 4% and roads 83%.

Going Green

The global aviation industry is not a johnny- come-lately when it comes to reducing its environmental impact. Airbus’s head of sus- tainable development, Philippe Fonta, points out that the industry has reduced the noise generated by commercial aircraft by 20 decibels compared with that of equivalent aircraft in the 1970s, and this has resulted in a 75% decrease in noise annoyance caused by commercial aviation.

There has also been a 90% reduction in unburned hydrocarbon and smoke emissions as well as a more than 50% reduction in carbon monoxide emissions from aircraft. The amount of fuel consumed has been reduced by 70% over the last 40 years, and the amount of CO2 emissions has also been reduced by 70% over the same period. “There aren’t many industries that can talk about reducing fuel consumption by 70% over 30 or so years,” points out Leahy. “No other industry is doing so much to reduce its impact on the environment.”

Nevertheless, the aviation industry, in general, has committed itself to do even better. The industry objectives include a further 50% reduction in noise by 2020, in comparison with 2000 levels, and, likewise, a 50% reduction in aircraft fuel consumption and CO2 emissions, as well as an 80% reduction in NOx emissions over the same period. “We have to learn to do more with less, not do less.

If we ever are to address environmental issues, it won’t be by adding costs,” stresses Leahy. “Many measures that help the environment also increase efficiency and reduce costs. The best approaches are those that benefit airlines, passengers and the environment.” “We need to keep growing, but with less environmental impact,” says Fonta. “Aircraft will only be accepted if they are efficient in terms of the environment. We have to keep technology at the heart of our programme to improve our performance.”

The latest-generation major airliners just entering, or soon to enter, service are the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 787. The Boeing 787-8 will be able to carry between 210 and 250 passengers, and the 787-9 between 250 and 290 over intercontinental ranges.

With its use of composite materials to replace metals on an unprecedented scale, the 787 is lighter but stronger than earlier- generation equivalent aircraft. It also benefits from refined aerodynamic design, reducing drag and increasing lift. The result is an aircraft that will use 20% less fuel (and thus generate less CO2) per passenger, and have a noise footprint 60% smaller than the footprint of equivalent aircraft operating today.

The Airbus A380 can carry 525 passengers or more and, like the 787 (but to a lesser degree), uses composites to reduce weight. Its fuel consumption is less than three litres per passenger per 100 km, in comparison with the average of 6,5 â„“ per person per 100 km for cars currently marketed in Europe, and the 9,6 â„“ for cars in the US. It generates less than 75 g of CO2 per passenger per kilometre, while EU motor manufacturers seek to achieve 140 g per person per kilometre during this year. Again, the aircraft generates considerably less noise. Even the paints used on the A380 have reduced environmental impact.

Engine manufacturers are also very active. For example, CFM International’s new CFM56-5B turbofans, recently ordered by low-cost carrier EasyJet to equip its Airbus A319 airliners, will reduce NOx emissions by 25% and significantly cut fuel consumption, CO2 emissions, and maintenance costs. For the longer term, CFM has the Leading Edge Aviation Propulsion programme, which is focused on developing and maturing new technologies, including composite fans, an advanced compressor design, next-generation combustor technology, and next-generation high- and low-pressure turbine technologies.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is well set to cut engine noise levels by 50% by 2010 in comparison with 1998 levels, cut fuel consumption by 10%, and reduce NOx emissions by 50% of those required by current regulations. Rolls-Royce is also the leading partner in the UK’s Environmentally Friendly Engine (EFE) programme, which involves 11 British institutions, from industry to academia. Using 2000 as the baseline, the EFE programme seeks to reduce CO2 emissions by 50%, NOx emissions by 80%, and noise levels by 50%, by 2020. The EFE programme is seen as a contribution to meeting the environmental performance standards set by Europe’s Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe.

Aviation companies are also pursuing many other technologies to increase efficiency, and reduce fuel consumption and emissions from aircraft. These include fuel cells – to replace jet fuel-powered auxiliary power units, which provide power to the aircraft on the ground, when their main engines are not running – electric motors fitted to the undercarriage wheels (so that aircraft can taxi without having to use their main engines), refined aerodynamics (itself requiring improved design and development software, materials, and manu-facturing processes), and radical new designs of engines and aircraft.

Alternative fuels are also being investigated, such as gas-to- liquids-produced synthetic fuels (now under early test), and possible second-generation nonfood biofuels. (First-generation biofuels cannot be used because they have too low an energy content for aircraft – airliners filled up with ethanol would lack the range to cross the Atlantic from Europe to South America, for example.) Second-generation biofuels might be available by 2020, and a fuel mix including 30% biofuels might be in service by 2030.

Companies are also seeking to make their manufacturing processes more environment friendly. Airbus, for example, was awarded ISO 14001 certification in June last year. It has stated targets to reduce energy and water consumption and waste emissions from its industrial processes by 2020.

These targets are a 30% reduction in energy consumption, a 50% reduction in CO2 emissions, a 50% reduction in water consumption, a 80% reduction in water discharge and a 50% reduction in waste production. The benefits from the savings will be invested in research and technology (R&T) for green aviation technologies. The company has committed itself to increasing its R&T budget by 25% from 2008.

(Keith Campbell was a guest of Airbus at the company’s annual technical press briefing, in May)