Climate Change in Commercial Air Travel

Discussion on the impact of climate change on how aircraft manufacturers operate, with a particular focus on Boeing.

There has been much discussion in recent years about reducing the consumption of energy and production of greenhouse gasses in the transportation space. Cars have gone from gasoline to diesel to hybrid to fully electric. Ridesharing has transitioned from something aimed at reducing congestion on roads to one which hopes to limit the amount of greenhouse-gas emitting cars on the road. Given the number of cars on the road, it is easy to see why two of 15 ‘stabilization wedges’ proposed by Pacala and Socolow focus on automotive transportation [1].

Though automotive transportation might be the most easily addressed sustainability issue in transportation, climate change is sure to affect many other sectors across the transportation space, such as in air travel. Unlike cars, commercial aircraft cannot yet be powered by electric energy, and rely on petroleum-based fuel for power. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that in 1992 aircraft were responsible for 2% of all human-based carbon emissions and 13% of transportation-based emissions [2]. Miles travelled by aircraft has increased from 8.6% of all domestic travel to 12% in 2014, and emissions have increased accordingly [3]. Aircraft are roughly half as efficient as automobiles on a per-seat basis, so as it gains share of total transportation it is becoming increasingly important to focus on [4]. Air transportation may not yet be large enough to justify its own stabilization wedge, but it is undoubtedly an area where improved efficiencies can lead to significant reductions in overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Given that there were over 600 billion passenger-miles flown on US domestic flights in 2014, it is no surprise that airlines are trying to reduce fuel costs and emissions [3].  As such, aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing are attempting to increase the fuel efficiency of their aircraft. To that end, a recent meeting of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) in Montreal led to the adoption of new regulations on emissions by over 190 countries. In this agreement airlines must purchase credits to offset their emissions from commercial flights [5]. Though there is much to be done before any true benefits are realized, this demonstrates the changes coming about in the aviation sector.

Boeing has taken these measures very seriously and has considered the fuel economy of its commercial aircraft to be a crucial differentiator for some time now. Boeing has begun to manufacture aircraft fuselages out of composite materials which are lighter and more fuel efficient. Individual aircrafts can see up to a 20% improvement in fuel efficiency and switching entire fleets to composites from legacy materials can improve overall efficiency by 14-15% [6] Boeing’s 777X, to be introduced in 2020, will have the world’s largest composite wings, and the 787 Dreamliner will reduce carbon emissions by 20-25% compared to the aircraft it will replace. Improvements to engine efficiency and aircraft design will contribute to further gains [7].

Boeing first formally set operationally focused environmental goals in 2007, and is currently working towards its second set. Boeing has undertaken measures to reduce consumption in its own offices, pushing company-wide recycling initiatives, reducing water intake and energy consumption, and promoting zero-waste-to-landfill facilities [7].  Efficiency gains have also been achieved in supply chain management and manufacturing. Since 2012, Boeing has reduced hazardous waste production by 11.2%, greenhouse gas emissions by 8%, solid waste by 6.9% and water intake by 10.3%. [8]

As Boeing looks to the future, it is making many of the right moves. The company is examining biofuels for jet propulsion, pushing towards zero-emissions facilities, and donating time and money to conservation efforts [8]. Moving forward, Boeing must continue to work with its suppliers and partners to explore additional ways to reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions both within its own operations as well as by the aircraft the firm produces.


[1] “Stabilization Wedges”. Carbon Mitigation Initiative. Princeton Environmental Institute, Princeton University., accessed November 2016

[2] “IPCC Special Report: Aviation and the Global Atmosphere”. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 1999

[3] U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, Office of Airline Information, Air Carrier Summary : T1: U.S. Air Carrier Traffic And Capacity Summary by Service Class, available at as of Apr. 27, 2016.

[4] “2008 Guidelines to Defra’s GHG Conversion Factors: Methodology Paper for Transport Emission Factors”. DEFRA (2008).

[5] Fontain, Henry. “Over 190 Coutries Adopt Plan to Offset Air Travel Emissions”. The New York Times. 6 October 2016

[6] Timmis, A.J., Hodzic, A., Koh, L. et al. International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment. February 2015

[7] “The Boeing Company 2016 Environment Report”. Boeing., accessed November 2016

[8] “The Boeing Company 2015 Annual Report”. Boeing., accessed November 2016


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Student comments on Climate Change in Commercial Air Travel

  1. I totally agree that the airline industry has been more and more relevant to climate changes, both impacting (the industry is responsible for 6% of all GHG emissions) and being impacted (increase in suppliers´ cost, for instance) by these changes. Boeing, specifically, will play an extremely important role as the industry leader, together with Airbus. The changes these two companies implement in their production processes will directly affect global warming, so investment in R&D is paramount to address upcoming challenges.

    What concerns me, though, is (1) how these two companies may or may not address challenges differently and (2) how other entities may incentivize or disicentivize developments in the sector.

    (1) Boeing and Airbus should set the common ground strategy together. What would be the impact, for instance, if Airbus focuses on keeping costs low in the expense of higher emissions? What about selling airplanes to companies from different countries, where there are different government sustainability incentives and standards (e.g Germany vs. Ethiopia)? Although the world is moving to a more sustainable-focused direction, we´re far from getting into a consensus. One company´s decision will impact the whole sector, so instead of having completely different approaches to climate changes, it´s the role of Airbus and Boeing to talk and decide how the industry as a whole will move forward in regards to sustainability.

    (2) Different parties such as government regulation and international treaties have a high impact on Boeing´s P&L bottom line and therefore investment decisions. For instance, is forcing Boeing to purchase credits to offset their emissions from commercial flights the right decision? I tend to think it´s not. It could be much more long-term valuable to Boeing and the industry itself if Boeing commits to invest capital to develop new sustainable processes and materials, instead of buying credit emissions.I think we need a more in-depth discussion about whether or not forcing companies to buy credits is the best solution, as in my opinion regarding airline sector, it seems it´s not.

  2. One of the things that I find most encouraging about greenhouse gas emissions in the airline industry is that it is one of the better examples of having financial incentives aligned with environmental objectives. Often times factories have to go through costly capital projects to filter the gasses emitted from their facilities in order to become more sustainable. In the automotive industry, consumers have to pay more for expensive electric vehicles. The cost of electricity from renewable energy sources is more expensive than that from fossil fuel derived sources. But when it comes to the airline industry, this financial misalignment isn’t an issue.

    Jet fuel is the second highest expense for airline companies so there is a massive incentive for the industry to reform. As the author of this post rightly points out, work has already been done by Boeing and Airbus to improve the fuel efficiency of their aircraft. But the space is ripe for innovation in creating hybrid or full electric airplanes.

    This work has already begun in some unmanned aircraft (and a recent test with piloted craft). This set of scientists successfully circumnavigated the globe in a solar powered aircraft. Technology like this, scaled and made safer with the requisite funding, has the potential to truly revolutionize the industry. As the previous commenter points out, 6% of GHGs emitted today come from aircraft so improving this can make a meaningful impact in climate change prevention. And what better place to start than an industry where incentives are much more closely aligned.

  3. Great post! I think that you bring out some amazing points that are incredibly important points and ones that inevitably have implications on all air travelers. Given the gravity of the issue and the lack of uniform regulatory oversight, I believe it is incumbent upon the market leading airlines to partner with their suppliers and governing bodies and make the requisite investments to ensure the suitability of their business. While airlines overwhelming contribute to climate change, they will also feel the brunt of the residual affects and thus should make these efforts out of interest for the long term sustainability of their businesses.

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