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Flying clean away

 

JONATHON COUNSELL
Head of Environment, British Airways

For the first time, global Governments have a common stance on international aviation and climate change. Though it went largely unreported at the time, the world’s aviation ministers meeting this autumn at the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the industry’s global governing body, agreed a position to be presented to the Cancun climate summit. This represents an important milestone toward establishing a policy that will enable aviation to make a clear, accountable and proper contribution to global emissions reduction.

International aviation does not fit neat geographical boundaries, so it is very difficult to manage the industry’s CO2 emissions (about 2 per cent of the global humanmade total) under the United Nations traditional country-bycountry framework. The global governmental agreement overcomes this issue by treating world aviation as one sector rather than the sum of more than 190 national parts.

It also sets important targets for controlling and reducing the carbon impact of this global sector. These include fuel efficiency improvements of 2 per cent per year up to 2050 with the aspiration of achieving carbon neutral growth from 2020. (In Europe, we will achieve this from 2012.) The longer-term fundamental target, which the global aviation industry has adopted, and is now looking for Governments to approve too, is a 50 per cent reduction in net emissions by 2050.

Aviation ministers would not have supported these targets if they did not believe they were achievable. At British Airways, we set ourselves the 50 per cent reduction target two years ago — and we are very confident it can be realised through a combination of measures, including alternative fuels, cleaner aircraft, operational efficiencies and carbon trading. Everyone in the company is acutely aware of the impact airlines have on the environment and is absolutely determined that the industry should play its full part in the global effort to combat climate change.

Advancing biofuel technologies has great potential. British Airways is at the forefront of developing them and is working to ensure that any new fuels are wholly sustainable. This means that biofuel crops, as well as reducing our carbon emissions, must not take land from agricultural use, threaten biodiversity and natural habitats, or result in deforestation.

With our United States partner Solena, we are planning to build Europe’s first biojet plant in East London. When production starts in 2014, the plant will convert 500,000 tons of waste a year into clean fuel in sufficient quantities to power our fleet at London City Airport twice over. And, in reducing levels of waste going to landfill, this will also cut emissions of the greenhouse gas, methane.

We are also supporting a project at Cranfield University examining the potential of fuel based on algae grown at sea, which could capture CO2 from both the atmosphere and ocean.

New aircraft will also play a significant role. Our newest longhaul aircraft type, the Boeing 777-300ER, provides a 15 per cent saving in CO2 per seat. And the Boeing 787 “Dreamliner”, — of which we begin taking delivery in 2012, will bring further improvements, generating 30 per cent less carbon per seat than the 747s they will replace.

Operationally, we look to reduce emissions wherever we can. Wherever possible, our aircraft taxi in on one engine, use fuel-saving continuous descent approaches and shut down auxiliary power units during turnarounds. We have also taken a series of measures to reduce onboard weight.

We recently linked up with air traffic control providers NATS and BAA to operate a “perfect flight” from Heathrow to Edinburgh so as to highlight the potential for greater operational efficiencies. Protected from delays on the ground, the flight made a continuous climb to its most fuelefficient cruising altitude, then received the most direct routeing and an uninterrupted descent into the Scottish capital. This saved 350 kg of fuel — a 12 per cent improvement on a normal flight. By making routeings more efficient across the board, initiatives such as the Single European Sky could achieve this level of CO2 saving on a much wider basis.

So there are many direct ways in which aviation can reduce its emissions. The industry’s carbon impact can be further reduced through emissions trading — which is due to begin for European Union airlines in a little over a year’s time.

Emissions for each airline will be capped. Airlines will have to remain within the cap by cutting their emissions or buying additional carbon allowances from companies that have not used up their allocations. Such purchases are likely to be expensive — and, unlike aviation taxes, will give airlines a strong incentive to take further action to cut their direct carbon output.

Of course, a scheme limited to the European Union can only have a partial impact on global aviation emissions — and in some ways may unwittingly trigger emissions growth outside Europe.

The solution is a global framework for carbon trading. That is what we want to see — and the ICAO decision has taken an important step towards it. Policymakers at Cancun should now seek to promote measures that can enable a global framework to become a reality. That is the right way forward, and it cannot come too soon.

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