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Driving Green Aviation

I have spent the last two days chairing a conference on Driving Green Aviation. The conference brought together manufacturers, engineers, airlines and airport operators to discuss strategies for reducing GHG emissions from flying and the greening of the industry. An opportunity to hear from those at the forefront of advancing this agenda about what is being achieved and what may be possible in the next few years.

The bad news is that there is no magic solution around the corner, although Virgin Atlantic are planning an inaugural flight in a month's time using a biofuel  which does not require unsustainable water use or compete with agriculture. There is potential to make biofuels part of the fuel mix and there are significant efficiency gains to be made in the engineering of both the airframes and the engines. The efficiency gains coming from the work on engines are likely to  come through more quickly because upgrade kits are available and engines are replaced more frequently than new aircraft are purchased. Apparently increases in fuel prices are causing more airlines to add fuel saving features to the specifications when they purchase.

Price increases in fuel are beginning to drive change, wing tips which save ~3% of fuel consumption and therefore of GHG emissions, are increasingly standard. But they are not yet standard. After two days of listening to the arguments it seems to me that the single fastest way to get airlines to act to reduce emissions would be to tax kerosene. The trade in carbon through the EU – Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) is a poor substitute for cost pressures on the manufacturers and operators of aircraft. Engine washing can provide significant fuel use  and therefore GHG emission reductions – it is not standard because the cost of fuel is not high enough and because many airport operating companies are unwilling to facilitate the practice.

It remains to be seen whether or not trade in carbon emissions will produce cost pressures sufficient to drive change or whether the price increases will be absorbed without driving an increase in efficiency . In Europe in 2007 there was an oversupply of permits, too many were allocated by governments keen to ensure that their industries were not adversely effected, and the price per permit was nearly zero.  Without a lower cap and more rigorous allocation of permits the ETS cannot be expected to deliver reductions in emissions. A simple tax would be much more effective in driving fuel use efficiency and reducing emissions.

KLM, Swiss Air  and First Choice have achieved a great deal by focussing management effort on reducing fuel consumption. First Choice have focussed for 2006-2010 on reducing fuel emissions using a range of  technical solutions, reducing weight carried (and therefore fuel burn)  and reducing noise from aircraft operations. The new First Choice/TUI group is the third largest airline based in the UK – it would be good to hear more from them about the positive steps they are taking to reduce the negative environmental impacts of their air operations.

Swiss Air has achieved a 16% reduction in fuel consumption since 2002 through a range of fuel efficiency measures including paying careful attention to how the planes are flown. To increase efficiency, reduce fuel burn and GHGs, KLM are introducing winglets (~ reduction 3%); putting technical inserts into engines (reduction 15-20%), using engine washing (~1%). This adds up to a 12% improvement in the last 6 years and they are now 25% more efficient than the European average. If all airlines were as fuel efficient as KLM there would be a 25% reduction in GHGs per km flown. That would make a difference.

At the moment the airline industry is passing responsibility for the pollution it causes to the consumer – we are encouraged to offset our carbon emissions by buying carbon offsets. Take up is generally low – it suits some to argue that this is because consumers do not really care. It seems to me that the low take up can also be explained by the range of emissions data thrown up by the “calculators”  (as much as 300%)  and the uncertain nature of the consumer proposition. The consumer is offered either the opportunity to buy an offset which has already been achieved (why would I want to buy that?)  or one that might be made in the future often with high or opaque transaction costs – caveat emptor. It is not surprising that up take is low. First Choice with a clear proposition, its willingness to match the consumer's contribution and the credibility of the First Choice name behind the scheme is reported to be getting  a 40% take up.

What the consumer wants is to know that they are flying in the most carbon efficient way possible – what we need is data to enable consumers to make an informed decision, so that the can reduce their emissions, preferably by flying less or if they do fly by flying in a way which reduces their negative impact on our environment.

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