Relative to the rapidly changing automotive industry, which pumps out new models every year, the airplane industry has evolved at a considerably slower pace. This is not surprising, given that around 1,000 aircraft are made by Airbus and Boeing, the leading manufacturers. Unlike cars, changes in design and function take longer to incorporate into planes. For some time, the airline industry has been under pressure to increase its fuel efficiency and lower its greenhouse gas (GHG) impact. While airplanes contribute to 2%–3% of global GHG emissions annually, some posit that the high altitude of those emissions has a greater impact on climate change. This past month, the U.S. airline industry has been put on notice to reduce the amount of GHG from air travel.
Citing the right to regulate emissions as part of the Clean Air Act, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that almost one-third of global aircraft emissions originated from U.S. aircraft. To address this, President Obama has charged the EPA to begin crafting rules similar to the draft Clean Power Plan (111(d)) that addresses power plants and utility energy use. European carriers have been under similar pressure from the European Commission.
The Path toward Change
There are two fundamental ways that airplanes can reduce fuel use: they can use a lower GHG fuel source and they can make more efficient planes.
For airplanes, the lower GHG fuel source has been biofuel, either from biological sources or waste products. As discussed in Navigant Research’s Aviation and Marine Biofuels report, choosing biofuels also helps hedge against increases and variability in fuel costs. The volatility of aviation fuel cost over the last 5 years can be seen in the figure below.
Monthly Cost and Consumption: 2000-2015
(Source: U.S. Department of Transportation)
It is interesting to note, however, how relatively flat U.S. and international fuel consumption has been over the past 15 years. The United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) projections have cited the rapid growth of European plane travel in forecasting that fuel demand for air travel could result in a 300% to 700% growth in emissions by 2050.
U.S.-based United Airlines just announced an unusual step in securing biofuels for its planes. In late June, it was announced that the company is investing $30 million in Fulcrum BioEnergy. Once production of the waste-to-jet fuel has matured, United will be able to purchase up to 90 million gallons of jet biofuel. Fulcrum already has a deal with Cathay Pacific and has received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense with the aim of becoming another military jet fuel provider. Yet, United is not putting all of its eggs in one basket; it already had a deal with AltAir Fuel, which began in 2009.
Tags: Carbon Emissions, Clean Transportation, Greenhouse Gas, Transportation Efficiencies
| No Comments »