Some Have a Real Impact While Others Don’t, But Aviation Emission Reduction Efforts are Picking Up Steam

Environment, United

It’s been far too long since I’ve written about aviation and the environment, so today seemed like a good day to catch up. There are a lot of good things going on to help reduce aviation’s impact on climate change, and they should get more press. Not all of these things are a giant leap forward, however. I’m not convinced we have time to take baby steps, but I suppose baby steps are better than nothing.

ICAO’s Emission Reduction Proposal
The biggest news came from the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) last month when it announced that the world is one step closer to getting a CO2 emissions standard for production aircraft. If that sentence sounds stilted, it reflects the organization itself. It’s not a simple or clear-cut process to get anything out of ICAO.

Sloth ICAO

ICAO is a United Nations organization that is meant to govern aviation globally. As such, it moves at an excruciatingly glacial pace. (And if you don’t get the sloth-like reference in the photo above, watch this trailer for Zootopia.) When the European Union tried to make its Emission Trading Scheme apply to aviation, other nations balked. It devolved into a brawl with the US actually putting forth legislation to ban US airlines from participating. It was said that ICAO would step in to create a global option, yet ICAO had been wishy washy on this subject for years with nothing to show.

Here we are 4 years later, and there is… something. It was shocking to hear that ICAO had agreed upon an effort to reduce emissions. Sort of. See, it was ICAO’s 170 member panel of experts that agreed to new standards. This still has to get approved by the 36-state Governing Council.

The standard itself applies to aircraft manufacturers. Large commercial aircraft will have to show reduced fuel consumption by an average of 4 percent at cruise altitude (actual range is 0 to 11 percent depending upon weight). This is benchmarked against the emissions from 2015 deliveries. This would apply to new aircraft designs beginning in 2020 and aircraft currently in production by 2023. Though none of those dates seem important since there appears to be a grace period for deliveries until 2028 anyway.

Boeing says it fully supports this standard, so you know that means it has no teeth. And it really doesn’t. You can get some great detail from the International Council on Clean Transportation.

Widebody aircraft have to see a reduction of about 7 percent. Considering in 2015, most widebodies were 777s and A330s with some 787s and A350s peppered in, this should be easy. By 2028, we’ll see almost entirely new generation 777s, A350s, and 787s rolling off the line. Presumably they’ll meet that fuel consumption improvement standard already. It’s no different for narrowbody aircraft. That target is 9 percent, but in 2015 most deliveries were 737NG and A320ceo aircraft. By 2028 they’ll be all 737MAX and A320neo planes if not something newer than that. The reduction target will be met easily.

So does this matter? It does in the sense that it will be an actual standard that can be revised in the future (in theory). Better to have that than nothing at all. But will it have any practical impact? No. So with that, let’s look at something with brighter prospects.

Biofuels From the Tap in Oslo
If you’re flying through Oslo, there’s a decent chance you’ll end up on a flight powered by biofuel via the ITAKA project. This may not sound like anything earth-shattering. After all, airlines have done biofuel tests for years with fine results. The difference here is that this is sustainable camelina-based biofuel that is being delivered through the airport’s traditional fuel delivery systems. It walks and talks like regular fuel and will be a part of the regular fuel supply options going forward.

The camelina is grown primarily in Spain (with some in Romania). It then makes its way to Finland where it’s refined into a fuel that can be dropped right into an aircraft without any modification. Camelina is sustainable. It grows fast, doesn’t require a ton of water, and is relatively efficient at producing fuel. Oh, and it reduces CO2 emissions by 75 percent.

With a production system in place, Oslo has taken the big step forward of integrating this camelina fuel into its regular fuel storage and delivery systems. So if an airline wants it, it doesn’t have to do anything different than it would with regular jet fuel, other than pay the going rate.

United Brings Biofuels Into the Rotation
United is trying something slightly less ambitious here in the US. It has now started regularly using a part-biofuel mix (30 percent biofuel) in Los Angeles. It’s buying the mix of natural oils and agricultural waste from a local provider in LA. Now that it no longer serves that mix as coffee onboard, it has leftovers it can use for fuel. This is also stored and delivered the same way other fuel is, but from the looks of the picture in the press release, that still requires trucks.

Some of these things are real progress. Some aren’t. But at least the tide is moving in the right direction.

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15 comments on “Some Have a Real Impact While Others Don’t, But Aviation Emission Reduction Efforts are Picking Up Steam

  1. Having read your blog since the beginning (it’s what helped me make it through medical school), I felt like today’s post had some of the most memorable and classic CF zingers ever!
    Commendations for :
    1. The cartoon is awesome!! (And the movie is great and worth seeing!!) The scene you mention is hilarious.
    2. Not convinced we have time to take baby steps – agree with you completely! Here’s hoping those who wanted to step into leadership positions find a way to lead effectively.
    3. United switching the local mix of waste product from coffee to fuel – super classic zzzzzing that had me lol

  2. Four years to produce just a proposal on something that is happening anyway? Improving aircraft emissions is something the free market has actually been very good at (even if their reasons are only financial rather than environmental). Having regulations for the sake of having regulations seems to be a waste of money and time.

    Or would we prefer Boeing and Airbus to work on the ICAO’s timetable on when it is time to launch new generations of aircraft? The car industry is not like aircraft production. Honda can re-launch the Civic every 5 years and make many changes between model years. I don’t think Boeing and Airbus have that luxury.

    As for the bio-fuel, I just hope we don’t create another mandated ethanol boondoggle like we did with unleaded gas.

    1. I’m not sure ethanol was a boondoggle. Thousands of corporate farms in the midwest are making millions off of the requirement instead of the billions we were spending on foreign oil at the time the renewable fuel standard was signed. And besides do we have a better alternative to MBTE to enhance octane? If you don’t removing ethanol could actually increase the price of gasoline, even in today’s market.

      1. Fair enough, then lets call it what it really is, a government handout (at best a jobs program). From seed to tailpipe, corn based ethanol is not environmentally friendly. It take more energy to produce ethanol than it creates. 40% of US corn production goes to ethanol. It drives up food prices and uses up approximately 29 million acres of land to grow it.

        If some want to use it as an octane booster fine, but it is time to toss the 10% mandate.

        1. @ Joe
          One other reason why corn should not be used for ethanol… it drives of the cost of bourbon whiskey! That should be a good enough reason for banning the use of corn for ethanol :) :)

  3. “Now that it no longer serves that mix as coffee onboard, it has leftovers it can use for fuel.”

    I love this blog.

  4. What percentage of the agricultural land would have to be converted to grow enough fuel to make this an effective proposition, and how does this compare to using the same money to reduce consumption in other areas or generate alternative energies to replace other emission generators (coal -> wind/solar)?

    I am sure there are some interesting studies that address this. My gut feel is that we can’t really farm ourselves out of the hole that we are in (whether ethanol for cars or biofuel for airplanes).

    PS: loved the coffee joke; almost spewed the real coffee I was drinking all over my iPad.

    1. Oliver – I don’t have specifics on yield, but I do know that it’s a low maintenance crop. So, it can grow in places with less rain than other crops might need. It doesn’t need a ton of TLC either since it requires little fertilizer and pesticide. So I have to think this could potentially grow in places that might not be great for farmland today. That’s speculation though.

  5. In general aviation, the FAA has certified certain small aircraft to operate on old fashioned gasoline, if you can find it in the US. However, the addition of ethanol is not permitted because of the damage it does to the gaskets. There have also been problems with ski-mobile and outboard motor engines with ethanol. I hope that this next generation of biofuels is appropriately tested while incorporated into aviation fuel.

    1. Yes, it’s called “lightly leaded,” or LL. Still has lead in it. But it’s such a small amount compared to what cars use, it’s not too much of an issue. However, any amount of lead is not a good thing. I’m not sure if you bought a new Cessna today if the gaskets would be compatible with ethanol or not, tolerances being much tighter when you are several thousand feet in the air!

  6. Growing corn to produce ethanol is not cost effective by cradle to grave analysis plus it is more damaging to auto engines than MTBE. Camelina sounds better but I don’t know the economics.

  7. CF, I don’t get why you’re so hard on the IACO standard. Sure its “easy” but aircraft and aircraft engine manufacturers have been doing a good job at reducing fuel usage. As Joe says above, its already happening.

    I’d get it if there was an additional environmental improvement that the market didn’t want. However, in this case the customers for aircraft want to burn less fuel. (An example where the tradeoff is what the market didn’t want is for low sulfur diesel. Over the road trucks are the main users of this, and it REDUCES their fuel efficiency from 6 mph for normal sulfur diesel to 5.5 mph, so it costs them more, but it reduces sulfur emissions.)

    1. If anything this standard should apply to airlines to encourage them to use more fuel efficient planes. Yes, many of them already do so, but with all the flexible scheduling there is more space for less fuel efficient planes. Yes Delta, I’m looking at you.

    2. Nick – That’s the point. This standard doesn’t change anything in the world. It’s already happening based on current commercial expectations.
      Boeing and Airbus have built airplanes that are much more efficient, and those are the ones that will be delivered. If there’s a standard, it should push manufacturers to do more than they do today. This doesn’t do that.

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