Just How Green Can An Airline Be?
Illustration by: Matt Mahurin
Air France-KLM announced a plan last week that could significantly cut aircraft emissions. The airline will invest $2.9 Billion (€2 Billion) a year—about 10 percent of its annual revenue— to replace older, fuel-guzzling planes with greener, more fuel efficient aircraft.
Airline emissions only account for about 3 percent of CO2 emissions, but they are rapidly increasing because air traffic is growing by 3.1 percent a year. “Even though 3 percent doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s not negligible,” said the climate scientist Richard Somerville, who is at the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “Airline mileage grows more than airline fuel efficiency improves each year. It’s not a huge problem, but it’s not insignificant and it’s growing.”
Yet the climatologist Mark Chandler of Columbia University’s Center for Climate Systems Research and NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies says that 3 percent translates into a sizable carbon footprint. "The fact of the matter," Chandler said, "is that’s actually a huge number. If you take all the different industries that produce emissions, very few of them are so high." The carbon footprint measures the impact that human activities have on the environment, by way of greenhouse gases, in units of carbon dioxide.
With the announcement of its climate action plan, Air France-KLM becomes part of the airline industry’s current effort to address the issue of fuel consumption. One reason is that it is better for business, as concern about global warming grows. But emissions reduction projects not only give airlines a green image, they also help save money as fuel prices rise. Some airline leaders are even talking about alternative fuels — which can be less expensive than petroleum-based fuel. Many scientists say, however, that fuel efficiency may be the most effective way for the airline industry to tackle climate change.
The airline industry has improved its fuel efficiency by 20 percent in the last 10 years as a result of improved engine and aircraft technology as well as streamlined operating procedures. According to the French Civil Aviation Authority, 20 percent of the world’s older aircrafts produce 60 percent of air transport CO2 emissions. That’s one reason why Air France is focusing its climate action plan on modernizing its fleets.
Pierre Caussade, senior VP of environment and quality for Air France, says that by 2012, the airline hopes to lower CO2 emissions for overseas travel by 20 percent and lower domestic emissions by 5 percent. The company’s climate action plan also includes measures to reduce noise pollution.
“Usually we phase out very old aircraft,” said Caussade, “sometimes 30 years old. Now we are in the process of replacing quite recent aircraft.” Fifteen of the relatively new Boeing 747s — only in service since 2002 — will be replaced with the more fuel efficient Boeing 777s, he said. The 777s use 28 percent less fuel per passenger-km.
Aircraft emissions have a particular impact on climate change, because the greenhouse gases that airplanes release into the stratosphere often remain there. "The impact is bigger than it would be if you had planes flying in the troposhpere," where cars release emissions, said David Levinson, a physical scientist with the National Climate Data Center.
It’s not just CO2 that airlines need to worry about…Water vapor is a greenhouse gas and can have a climate impact.
It’s not just CO2 that airlines need to worry about, Levinson said. "There are things like sulfur emissions from the exhaust," he said, "There’s also water vapor [which] even though it seems like it would be innocuous, is actually a concern in the stratosphere. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas and can have a climate impact."
Levinson talked about the actions that airlines can take, aside from aircraft changes, to reduce their bulky carbon footprint. "One issue," he said, "is local air quality near airports due to taxi-ing and idling aircraft with their engines on. There’s also all the ground equipment."
Air France-KLM has also announced long-term goals of participating in the European Union’s emissions trading scheme. “We are part of the problem, " said Caussade, "so we want to be part of the solution.”
Chandler, of Columbia, says that greening the fleet is a win-win situation for airlines. "Most companies are actually finding," he said, "that if they can meet those kinds of emissions standard, it’s essentially like saying, ‘We will become a more efficient energy-using company,’ which has huge dollar savings. They can do something seen as green that is actually green. And they also end up saving money on it in the long term, particularly with the airlines, which are just getting hammered with high fuel costs right now."
Airlines are an important target for fuel conservation because there are no easy alternatives to fossil fuels.
Airlines are an important target for fuel conservation because there are no easy alternatives to fossil fuels. The kerosene used to power aircraft engines requires a number of specifications tied to safety concerns, says the French Institute of Oil. The recipe needs to take into account, for example, freezing cold temperatures at high altitudes and the fumes that clog fuel injectors. Until alternative fuels become commercially viable, the Institute advocates using different oil refining methods to produce more kerosene with the same amount of oil. Future goals, says Air France, include using other raw materials, preferably biomass, to make synthetic kerosene.
Qatar Airways has already beaten Air France—and every other airline in the world—to the punch. On Friday, Qatar flew the first commercial aircraft powered by an alternative fuel in a flight from Filton, Britain, to Toulouse, France. The Airbus A380 sustained a successful three-hour flight, running on Shell GTL (gas-to-liquid) Jet Fuel.
While this alternative fuel may take some of the burden off oil, its environmental advantages are questionable. For starters, there is no difference in CO2 emissions between GTL and regular fuel. GTL’s one benefit, though, is that it produces almost no sulfur, which could help improve local air quality.
“Whether the GTL process is better or worse in terms of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Somerville, the Scripps scientist, “depends on many details. After all, natural gas…is itself a greenhouse gas, [since] natural gas is mainly methane.”
Virgin Atlantic wants to go a step further and become the first airline to use biofuels. The airline hopes to use a biofuel mix derived from either algae or soybeans, combined with some jet fuel, to fly a Boeing 747. While Virgin’s plan to reduce greenhouse gases has greater potential, nothing is certain as of yet.
“Biofuels are complicated too,” Somerville said, “and a lot depends on specifics. How exactly was the biofuel produced? Were there large inputs of energy or water or fertilizer or other materials needed to grow the algae or soybeans, or harvest and process them, or transport them?…Some biofuels, when substituted for fossil fuels, do represent substantial reductions in GHG emissions — and some do not. The devil is in the details.”
Qatar is looking at a 2009 launch date for commercial use of GTL alternative fuel, while the commercial viability of biofuels in planes has yet to be seen.
Air France is clearly betting that, in time, ecological concerns will become a higher priority for consumers choosing an airline. “In the criteria for consumers to choose one airline from another airline,” said Caussade in an interview, “is the cost of the tickets, the comfort delivered onboard, the safety, the performance. But progressively, the green aspects — the way the company at the corporate level takes into account the environment — will be part of the decision.”
Update: An earlier version of this did not identify climate scientist Richard Somerville, who is at the University of California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He was only identified as Somerville. We regret the error.