As a producer of about 2% of global man made greenhouse gases, the aviation industry is facing increasing pressure to reduce climate changing emissions. The Paris climate agreement commits governments to take their own actions to reduce greenhouse gases, so some countries individually regulate emissions from domestic flights. International flight was not included in the Paris accords, but in October 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization, the United Nations agency that governs air travel, reached a landmark global emissions reduction agreement. So far 65 nations, including the United States and China, have agreed to a scheme that will require airlines to offset carbon emitted above a benchmark level set in 2020 by purchasing credits.[i]
While these incentives to reduce emissions will go into effect, the aviation industry is expected to continue its rapid growth – the worldwide commercial fleet is projected to double over the next fifteen years.[ii] The increase in miles flown must therefore be offset by increasing fuel efficiency. Not only that, but fuel makes up the largest portion of many airlines’ operating expenses – usually around 40%. For an industry that typically operates on small margins, this proportion makes airlines extremely vulnerable to large fluctuations in oil prices.
This presents a challenge and opportunity for aircraft manufacturers like Boeing. As one of the two major producers of large commercial aircraft (Airbus being the other), Boeing must continue to innovate solutions to help their customers use less fuel and reduce emissions. This imperative is demonstrated by Boeing’s recently released commercial aircraft. The 787 Dreamliner, released in 2011, makes extensive use of composite materials, including much of the aircraft structure and fuselage. Not only does this reduce weight, but it allows for a more aerodynamic wing that could not have been built with conventional materials. These improvements allow the 787 to achieve a 20 – 25% reduction in fuel consumption relative to similar aircraft on a per passenger basis. The advanced composite material technology demonstrated by the 787, along with efficient GE engines, will be integrated into the existing and already successful 777 airframe to produce the 777X. Boeing plans to roll out the 777X in 2020 and projects it will have 12% better fuel economy than its competitors.[iii]
However, due to the long production cycle of aircraft – Boeing currently has an order backlog of over seven years – it will take decades for airlines to upgrade their fleets with the newest, most efficient aircraft. In the interim, other fuel saving technology can help to bridge the gap. Adding winglets to wings reduces drag and increase fuel efficiency by up to 5%.[iv] More fuel economy can be gained by replacing old engines with new, more efficient ones. Additionally, Boeing is going beyond just building fuel efficient airplanes to creating operating procedures that will reduce fuel consumption. Working with Alaska Airlines at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport for example, Boeing developed approach procedures that allowed inbound aircraft to land with less separation. For each flight, these efficiencies saved about nine minutes, equating to 87 gallons of fuel and one metric ton of carbon emissions.[v]
A more ambitious method to reduce aircraft emissions is the development of biofuels, fuel made from various renewable plant materials. Aviation biofuels can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 50-80% compared to conventional fossil fuels. Boeing is partnering with other aerospace companies, research institutions, and airlines to further develop “drop in” biofuels, which can be blended with conventional aviation fuel without any modification to the airplane fuel system or engines. Such biofuels can deliver the same and in some cases better performance than traditional jet fuel. Boeing currently has biofuel projects in the U.S., Australia, Africa, Canada, China, Europe, Japan, Middle East, South Africa, and Southeast Asia.[vi] At this point though, biofuel production is still extremely limited due to its limited production and high cost.
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[i] Lowy, Joan, UN Agreement Reached on Aircraft Climate Change Emissions, U.S. News and World Report, http://www.usnews.com/news/business/articles/2016-10-06/un-agreement-reached-on-aircraft-climate-change-emissions, Accessed November 2016.
[ii] Fountain, Henry, “Rethinking the Airplane, for Climate’s Sake,” The New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/12/science/rethinking-the-airplane-for-climates-sake.html?_r=0, Accessed November 2016.
[iv] Davies, Alex, “Planes Have to Get More Efficient. Here’s How to Do It’” Wired, https://www.wired.com/2015/06/planes-get-efficient-heres/, Accessed November 2016.
[v] Hardcastle, Jessica Lyons, “Boeing Procedures Help Alaska Airline Improve Efficiency, Cut Fuel Consumption,” Environmental Leader, http://www.environmentalleader.com/2015/07/06/boeing-procedures-help-alaska-airline-improve-efficiency-cut-fuel-consumption/,
Accessed November 2016.
[vi] Boeing Company Documents, “Boeing Biofuel Backgrounder,” http://www.boeing.com/resources/boeingdotcom/principles/environment/pdf/Backgrounder_Boeing_biofuel.pdf, Accessed November 2016.