Aviation and the Environment

Today, at the „Aviation and Environment Summit“, taking place in Geneva, IATA’s Director General  Giovanni Bisignani called on the world’s government to unite in support of aviation’s ambitious targets to combat climate change and to agree on a global approach at the ICAO Assembly in Montreal.
As probably everyone who is interested in aviation (politics) knows, these targets are:
  • To achieve carbon neutral growth by 2020
  • To improve fuel efficiency by 1.5% on average annually (based on RPM)
  • To cut net emissions by 50% in 2050 compared to 2005
Let’s see, if – or which - these targets are ambitious and which are achievable!
Taking the data from RITA BTS (Research and Innovative Technology Administration – Bureau of Transportation Statistics), where one can obtain flown RPM’s and fuel consumption, the US Carriers bettered their efficiency by 3.4% annually on domestic flights (less, but still more than 2% on international traffic).
Looking into the Sustainability Report of german flag carrier Lufthansa reveals that fuel efficiency between 1991 and 2008 also rose by an average of 3.4% annually.
Thus the target of 1.5% does not seem to be too ambitious.
A total different story is the goal to achieve carbon neutral growth by 2020:
Let’s take the Boeing CMO: an annual RPM growth rate of 5.3% minus 1.5% efficiency improvement per year leads to a yearly growth in carbon emissions of 3.8% - take the more ambitious ICAO goal  of 2% annual improvement and the gap is still 3.3%.
Now what makes us believe that – suddenly – from 2020 on we can close that gap to zero?
The answer: Offsets! In other words: Emissions Trading! Nothing else are the “economic measures” or the “fourth pillar” of aviation industry’s strategy, with the other three being investing in new technology, more efficient infrastructure and more effective operations.
So, in reality, we won’t see carbon neutral growth from 2020, as aviation will have to pay for a “letter of indulgence” for their then still-growing emissions – given that we still have that kind of continuous growth in aviation as we had historically until today (over the long run, ignoring short-term lows e.g. after 9/11 and the financial crisis).
In 2009, according to Bisignani, aviation emitted 625 million tones of CO2.
In 2020, this would grow to 1.081 million tones, assuming the 5.3% growth rate and the 2% efficiency improvement every year.
In 2005, aviation used about 75 billion gallons of fuel worldwide, I found somewhere. This would lead to about 702 million tones of CO2 – as we can assume that aviation grew enough between 2005 and 2009 to let fuel consumption grow also, this source is a little bit conflicting to Bisignani’s number for 2009. Nevertheless: if we want to achieve the 50% target in 2050 and now even assume no growth between 2020 and 2050 we would have to save about 730 million tones in 2050 compared to 2020.
The biggest part from that would have to come from biofuels.
Now advances in biofuels have been enormous over the past few years and probably will be in the next years. But it remains unclear, when it will be possible to produce 2nd or 3rd generation biofuels in such large quantities that it will have an impact on overall CO2 emissions in  the aviation sector. And we should not forget that there are other transportation modes which want to have their slice of the pie. Even if it looks like automobiles are more likely to use electricity in 2050 than any form of fluid fuels, in the meantime the worldwide fleet of diesel- and gas powered cars will raise.

What’s the point for today?
Well: Please, Airbus, Boeing, Embraer: come forward with your re-engining plans – or decide quickly to come up with all-new designs by 2020. It won’t save the planet, but would make the problem a little bit smaller.

Have a nice weekend!