Airline Sector Pledges Big Emissions Cuts

VANCOUVER, Canada ~ Leaders of the world’s airline industry said at their annual meeting that airlines would strive to be more “green” and aim for zero carbon dioxide emissions by 2050, but skeptics questioned whether the goal was realistic.

“I don’t have all the answers, but I’m sure research can find the way to achieve zero percent in 50 years. This is realistic,” Giovanni Bisignani, director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), said at the group’s annual conference in Vancouver this week.

Bisignani identified reducing emissions as the industry’s new priority for the sector, which has revived with expected earnings of US$5 billion for 2007 after several years of losses.

“We have to transform this vision into reality, working with the different actors of this industry,” he said at the conference. “We need a global scheme, a common approach to technologies.”

But there was skepticism in the corridors of the conference hall over the practicality of reaching the zero emissions target given the relentless growth in air travel.

“With the prospects of an increasing air traffic, between aging populations of OECD countries, emerging markets and continuing globalization of business activity, this can make us sweat,” said Michael Levine, a researcher at New York University.

Despite current efforts to reduce fuel consumption by 25 percent by 2020 using existing technologies, the carbon footprint of the civil aviation industry is growing as a portion of global emissions.

“There is no sense” in aiming for zero emissions,” said Levine, a former airline executive.

“Technologically, I don’t believe in zero emissions. But I believe we have to be responsible for our emissions and declare to the public we’re going to make the best efforts we can,” he said.

The IATA is counting on scientific advances, through the efforts of air carriers and with the public sector – including governments, regulators, United Nations – imposing international standards and creating a carbon emissions trading market.

“To reach zero emissions for carbon dioxide, you need fuel without carbon, that is to say a hydrogen engine,” said Trung Ngo, head of communications at the Canadian airline Bombardier.

A hydrogen jet engine, which requires enormous reserves, was already tested in the 1980s, he said.

“It is viable technically, but the problem that remains unresolved to this day is storage. It requires a tremendous compression of hydrogen,” Ngo said.

Biofuels present an even more daunting challenge.

“It would require some fields as large as Florida to produce 10 percent of the biofuels needed by the US airlines,” said Philippe Rochat, head of the environmental division at IATA.

At the moment, there are only “intermediate solutions” available to the aviation industry, according to Ngo.

“The most successful technology is the ‘geared fan’ engine,” Ngo said. “It promises to be 30 to 40 percent more effective than existing engines” but it has yet to be introduced on the market.

According to the IATA, “today’s modern aircraft consume an average 3.5 liters per 100 passenger kilometers. This is similar to a small compact car but with six times the speed.”

On the manufacturing front, the use of composite materials and other design changes have produced greater fuel efficiency in the next generation of aircraft, such as the Boeing 787 and the Airbus 350 and 380.

“We’re evolving on the right path,” said Robert Milton, head of Air Canada.

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