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.
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.