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Carr: Green Liners

New airplanes cut greenhouse gas emissions.

October 15, 2007  By David Carr

Aviation has done a lot to shrink its carbon footprint. How much more can be done?

A new generation of medium-sized jets will be cleaner than the Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s they will replace. They will need to be. Air transport contributes a razor-thin two percent of man-made carbon dioxide pumped into the air, but aviation is one of the fastest growing contributors of greenhouse gas emissions.

According to the Aviation Environment Federation, industry improvements in fuel efficiency of approximately two percent per year are already being outstripped by growth of more than double that. And short-to-medium hops represent the largest slice of the commercial pie.

Both Airbus and Boeing have a lot on their plates at the moment, and are likely going to want time to digest the enormous cost of developing the A380 double-decker and 787 Dreamliner (along with the A350 and an enlarged version of the 747). When each does get around to unveiling an A320/B737 replacement, look for something radically different than what has come before.
UK discount airline Easyjet may have crystal-balled the future in June when it took the wraps off its proposed ‘ecoJet’. The airplane features two open rotor engines mounted on the rear between a double tailfin. Easyjet claims the airplane would produce 50 percent less carbon dioxide and 75 percent less nitrogen oxide than the A320 and B737.


Pie-in-the-sky? Perhaps. Easyjet admits the design is a cut-and-paste, albeit one that relies on existing technology. Boeing is using lighter aluminum composites to construct the wing and fuselage of the 787. The ecoJet’s engine is based on a Rolls-Royce design, and General Electric recently dusted off its own open rotor engine that had been tested in the 1980s on an MD-80 before being scrapped.

The airline says it wants to more than double its existing fleet of 122 A319 and B737 aircraft by 2014, and is prepared to back a green airliner with a £4-billion order. These are numbers manufacturers dream of when launching a new project. They are also numbers that underscore the Aviation Environment Federation’s point. Twice as many airplanes emitting 50 percent less greenhouse gas leaves us exactly where we started.

But is doubling in size without adding a tonne to the carbon footprint a bad thing? International Air Transport Association CEO Giovanni Bisignani wants a “zero emission” industry. That must always be the goal. Accommodating aviation’s growth to 2050 – including expected increases in corporate activity (HOV air lanes for aircraft carrying more than three passengers) – while corralling emissions at 2007 levels is a respectable benchmark and good starting point.

The airline industry is hungry to establish its green bona fides. Leo Van Wijk, vice-chairman of Air France, argues that this is nonsense. He is right. Anybody who remembers early model DC-8s and 727s screaming into local airports and laying down a thick black carpet of emissions in the process understands how far environmentally the industry has come in 40 years.

Every new airliner is cleaner and more fuel-efficient than the one before. And jet engines are quieter, although there are concerns that an open rotor engine is a step backward in the noise department – an assumption denied by Easyjet which claims the ecoJet will be 25 percent quieter.

In the 1990s, Robert Crandall, CEO of American Airlines, cautioned that lavishing too much attention on turning air transport green could undercut the stability of the industry. Today the opposite is true. A global patchwork of inefficient air traffic control systems, bilateral agreements that stall direct air routes between countries, and airport congestion are tacking precious minutes onto every flight at the cost of $4.6 billion in unnecessary fuel burn alone.
Aviation is a messy business. Technology is doing what it can and it is up to governments to step up to the plate and do more, including consigning the outdated Chicago Convention to the green bin and reforming the regulations that govern international air space. Every tonne of fuel saved is 3.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide.

What is more likely is that governments will be quick to introduce a carbon tax as an incentive to lower emissions and leave everything else on the back burner. That would be a mistake. Carbon taxes are a throttle on consumption, but it would be unfair for governments to penalize airlines for emissions while refusing to do all it can to promote a greener industry.


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