Aviation contributes to about 2% of the world’s global emissions. IATA, the airline trade body predicts passenger numbers will double to 8.2 billion a year by 2037, while Boeing foresees a demand for 42,700-plus new aircraft over the next 20 years. That is why the European Union wants the industry to reduce CO2 emissions by 75%, nitrogen oxides by 90%, and noise by 65% until 2050, plus, a new Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation agreed by 70 countries will take effect in 2020.
Companies are using technological innovation to help reduce carbon emissions
Rolls-Royce is preparing to roll out a new-generation UltraFan in the middle of the next decade that will be 25% more fuel efficient than its first generation Trent engine, the company has been working on this new generation engine for more than 10 years now. Meanwhile, Airbus wants to develop greener, quieter hybrid-electric aircraft that can fly commercially by 2025. The manufacturer has also joined Siemens and Rolls-Royce for the development of the E-Fan X demonstrator aircraft scheduled to take flight next year.
On the other hand, LanzaTech thinks biofuels are the best alternative to kerosene-based jet fuels, however there is currently no biofuel plant in the world capable of producing enough compared to how much a major airline needs in a year. A healthy alternative would be to use bio-products blended with fossil fuel, but the necessary infrastructure and investment to scale up production is not ready either. Moreover, some biofuels in storage can degrade over time while some have even affected rubber parts used in engines. Even so, LanzaTech says they might have three gas-to-ethanol plants ready in the UK by 2025.
Mike Childs, head of science at environmental lobby group Friends of the Earth says: “Biofuels are not the clean fuel they’re claimed to be, and risk taking land away from food production and destroying forests.” Adding that “Electric planes are a little more than a pipe dream right now. And given the alarming rate of aviation expansion this sort of technology won’t be readily available until it’s far too late”.
Another way of having a beneficial impact on the environment is to better control the way planes fly or to reduce flying all together. Better air traffic management tech implies that planes hundreds of miles from a destination airport are slowing their cruising speed to avoid above-airport congestion. Plus, aircraft are now better able to find the optimum height when crossing the Atlantic or make use of the jet stream to save fuel. These tactics equate to about $175m in fuel savings over the last few years for aircraft.
However, critics say none of this technological innovation is enough. Prof Iain Gray, director of aerospace at Cranfield University says: “No other industry has spent so much money on improving its performance. But all the benefits that have been made are being offset by growth in air traffic.”