4 Steps Towards The Future Of Aviation

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By Tom Payne

Climate change is a serious global concern. The recent working report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has presented us with an incredibly grim picture on the future of the planet. Explaining that at least 2 degrees of human-induced warming is now inevitable, the report is a major wake up call for our current generation to drastically lower greenhouse
gas emissions.

To give you some context, in pre-industrial times there was 280 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. Today, there this figure is 400 ppm.

Of all of the human caused greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere, approximately 80% are carbon dioxide emissions from the use of petroleum, coal and natural gas. While we know very clearly the impacts that increasing CO2 is having on the future of the planet, levels have continued to rise at approximately 2 parts per million (ppm) every year. To give you some context, in pre-industrial times there was 280 ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere. Today, there this figure is 400 ppm.

So what has this got to do with flying? A lot. Air travel has increased dramatically over the last few decades. Between 2001 and 2006, the rate of air travel grew by 3.7 per cent. In China, the figure was 15.5 per cent. With this growth has also come a major increase in CO2 emissions. In fact, the total carbon emissions from global aviation are so high that it exceeds the total output of many countries.

In the EU the greenhouse gases emitted from aviation increased by 87 per cent between 1990 and 2006 (this can be attributed to a particularly large increase in flights in the UK over this time). Despite continuing airline efficiency improvements, airline travel is estimated to account for 3-5 per cent of global CO2 emissions. And this figure is rising drastically.

In 2007 it was reported, “Air travel is the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions”. In response, public and political pressure to do something about this is now mounting. As we see harsher regulations and policies to cap CO2 emissions, it is likely that we will start to see some sweeping changes to the airline industry in the years to come.

Source: Boeing

Source: Boeing

But CO2 emissions aren’t the only issue. Airlines cannot make it off the ground without relying on non-renewable resources. From the physical elements that comprise the airlines themselves, to the fuels that make the plane move, the airline industry is very vulnerable to declines in natural resource and the price changes that go with it. Already, we are seeing how oil and fuel scarcity can lead to major price spikes.

All of this is looking like grim news for the airline industry. It raises questions in regards to what can be referred to as ‘binge-flying’ and the ethics of airline companies in greenwashing and dishonest lobbying. Airlines have continually tried to position themselves as ‘green’ by coming up with slightly more fuel efficient ways of flying or
allowing passengers to offset their carbon, but the entire industry itself is based on burning fossil fuels. It simply cannot exist in its same form if we are going to move into a zero-carbon future.

So, where next for aviation? Here are four possible scenarios:

1. Fly less

This scenario is a simple one. Due to both the rising price of fuel as well as carbon reduction policy, the price of flying will increase. As a result, we’ll be forced to fly less.

Since early 2012 emissions from aviation have been included in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Similarly, just two weeks ago, the UN civil aviation body has reached an outline agreement on a global market-based scheme to curb emissions. While these policies are currently in conflict with one-another, it is a telling sign that ETS for aviation is here to stay in some form or another. With an increase financial burden on the industry, price rises will likely slow the growth in air travel. This could lead us to refocus our attention on high speed rail.

2. Utilise energy-efficient engines and air management systems

About one-third of the efficiency gap between airlines is attributed to fleet differences. New technologies can significantly improve the efficiency of aviation. Developments such as Geared Turbofan Engines, the use of composite ceramics and High-Speed Heat Exchangers offer some very promising examples on how to cut fuel use.

But fuel efficiency is not all just about the engine. While there exists much hype about new planes, less is known about the advances in air traffic control. Performance Based Navigation and ‘self-organised’ route planning are areas of increasing attention for airline stakeholders to optimise fuel efficiency.

3. Use bio-fuels

This may seem like an unrealistic scenario, but what if I was to tell you that it’s already happening? In March 2013 KLM began weekly flights by Boeing 777-200 between JFK in NYC and Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport using vegetable cooking oils. While concerns still remain as to where and how biofuels are sourced (ie. whether they are ‘sustainable biofuels’), biofuels are set to become the primary means by which the aviation industry can reduce its carbon footprint and reliance on fossil fuels.

4. Utilise the sun

Solar Impulse in Cincinnati. Source: Flickr/EdMullin

Solar Impulse in Cincinnati. Source: Flickr/EdMullin

With improved solar cell technology and energy storage systems the solar aviation future is nearing-in at a fast pace. While most flights are still in early experimental stage, Solar Impulse has been showing off its technology by flying from Europe to Africa, recently travelling across the United States and will soon travel the entire world. While the technology still faces a number of notable challenges, it’s not unrealistic to imagine widespread solar flight in the years to come.

While the aviation industry is finding itself faced with major challenges related to resource depletion and climate change, there now exists new opportunity for airlines to pioneer new research and pursue innovative ideas. Let’s stop thinking about climate change as an economic burden for aviation, and instead think of it as an opportunity to utilise brilliant navigation technology systems and innovative clean technologies.