CO2 emissions to become bizav’s main headache

 - May 16, 2011, 8:10 PM

Where is business aviation with its ambitious long-term goals in cutting CO2 emissions? Back in November 2009, the industry’s main lobbying groups late issued a “commitment on climate change” that achieved pledges including an intent to be carbon neutral by 2020. Ahead of this week’s EBACE show, AIN reviewed the stated goals with the U.S. General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) and the European Business Aviation Association (EBAA) representatives, as well as an environmentalist specializing in aviation. It appears that progress since 2005–the year taken as a starting point–is questionable, and the challenges ahead are mind-boggling.

The 2009 document, authored by GAMA and the International Business Aviation Council (IBAC), also commits the industry to achieving “an improvement in fuel efficiency of an average of two percent per year from today until 2020” and “a reduction in total carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of 50 percent by 2050 relative to 2005.” On this basis, a business aircraft built in 2050 “will be 45 percent more fuel efficient than one built in 2005,” with the remaining 5 percent cut in CO2 accounted for by operational changes.

Around the same time, a practically identical document, called the “business aviation statement on climate change,” was endorsed by a number of other lobbying groups. They include EGAMA (the European equivalent of Gama), EBAA, the U.S. National Business Aviation Association (NBAA), the Asian Business Aviation Association (AsBAA) and many of their national counterparts.

Manufacturers on Target

So has the sector gotten off to a good start between 2005 and 2010? “I think so,” Ed Smith, GAMA’s senior vice president for international and environmental affairs, told AIN. He said that manufacturers are on target, with the latest new aircraft models announced by manufacturers offering “significant efficiency improvements.” He added that operators are on target, too, because “operators, for economic and environmental awareness reasons, are improving their fuel efficiency.”

But in Europe, Pedro Vicente Azua, EBAA’s COO, doesn’t quite agree. “Certainly not for the 2005-2008 period–business aviation was growing,” he said. Since then, he believes the downturn has caused a reduction in CO2 emissions.

Jeff Gazzard is a board member of the Aviation Environment Federation, a UK-based nongovernmental organization advocating a more significant reduction in the negative environmental impacts of air transport. He expressed doubts about the sheer sincerity of the commitments. “By saying ‘Carbon-neutral growth by 2020,’ the industry means, ‘We’ll not do anything until 2020’; this is another decade of delay,” he told AIN.

Fuel, Technology, Best Practices

So what about the improvement in fuel efficiency? Smith explained that this is measured fleet wide, among all in-service business aircraft. According to the GAMA-IBAC roadmap, in 2050, relative to a “business as usual” scenario, alternative fuels alone will cut CO2 emissions by an expected 40 percent. Technology would be the second pillar, accounting for another 25 percent. Finally, operations and infrastructure would be credited for 14 percent, GAMA and IBAC report.

Gazzard challenged the technology pillar. “They’ll have a harder time trying to reach that goal than commercial aviation. In business aviation there is no game-changing engine [like a high-bypass-ratio geared turbofan],” he said.

This third pillar around operations and infrastructure mainly includes best practices. Smith suggested a number of things such as optimized flight planning, reducing weight, reducing use of APUs on ground and more accurate evaluation of passenger weights, for example. On a long-distance trip, such practices can lead to significant savings in the necessary fuel load.

On the air traffic management (ATM) side, which is also part of the third pillar, enhancements hold very limited promises, according to Gazzard. “Business aircraft largely fly short distances, so their routing is already as good as it can be,” he said. He evaluated ATM efficiency as already being at 92 or 93 percent.

But EBAA has higher hopes for ATM improvements, with Azua counting on future Sesar and NextGen advancements, like continuous-descent approaches. Such procedures avoid the leveling-off phases, which increase fuel burn, and they call for greater precision in satellite guidance. Europe is trailing the U.S. in that regard. The first EGNOS (Europe’s equivalent of the U.S. augmented GPS, Waas) approach was flown in Pau, southwest France, in March.

Biofuel Challenge

Alternative fuels may be the most controversial topic. Green lobbyists like Gazzard have long raised the question of, “Do you want to eat or fly?”  This refers to the debate about whether it is valid to grow crops to make fuel on land that could be used to grow food to feed people. But this is not the only environmental issue. Land-use change, a process that releases huge quantities of greenhouse gases that need decades to be recouped by biofuel production, is also appearing as a major concern.

In addition, the European Commission’s recent SWAFEA study (Sustainable Way for Alternative Fuel and Energy in Aviation) highlighted the challenging business case of building biofuel production facilities. For the “biomass-to-liquid” option, the investment would be on the order of €400 billion ($560 billion)–for Europe alone–spread over 40 years. About one quarter of the biofuel produced would go to aviation (not only business aviation). The rest would be for road transport and other uses.

This would allow aviation to meet its 2050 target, but at a price that investors would very likely find prohibitive. Depending on circumstances, it could take up to 26 years to break even.   

Azua admitted that “biofuels are not going to be a game-changer.” Nonetheless, he insisted that research activities must be continued.

Smith suggested that the full impact of biofuels is projected to “kick in later, around 2030.” A big benefit of these so-called drop-in fuels (they require no change in the engines) is that they impact an entire fleet overnight, he pointed out. He acknowledged that SWAFEA’s predictions are debatable but argued that the industry has to start with some sort of forecast on the contributions of biofuels.

So are bizav lobbyists supporters of the European Union’s emission trading scheme (EU ETS)? Despite its profound objections to what it views as the impractical and costly way ETS has been structured, EBAA accepts that it will make a difference. “We are counting on the EU ETS for a real reduction in CO2 emissions, as soon as 2012, when aviation is included in the scheme,” Azua explained. In preparation, business aircraft operators have already had to take a hard look at their emissions. “This has made them realize the amount of fuel they burn annually,” Azua said. He pointed out that compared to other sectors of aviation, fuel has a smaller share in business aviation costs.

However, Azua made it clear that EBAA is unhappy with the administrative and cost burden associated with ETS, which was conceived mainly with airlines in mind. The costs are disproportionate for business aviation, he said.

Smith agreed on that point and added another concern. “We think non-EU operators are [illegally] affected by a regional regulation,” he said. According to the IBAC/GAMA plan, “market-based measures” like ETS will just play a small interim role in bizav’s CO2 cuts.

One especially bold statement in the IBAC/GAMA “commitment” concerns weight. “Business aviation aircraft must be as light as possible,” it declares. But what about the comfortable cabin interiors and higher limits on luggage weight that set business aviation apart from the airline alternative?

Azua asserted that “extravagant cabins are visible but, in fact, most business aircraft have relatively simple interiors.” Moreover, he said, “operators do care about weight, as it impacts range.”

Smith pointed out that business aircraft are built for a given mission. “Passengers need tables and rotating seats, otherwise these aircraft would not sell,” he said, while insisting that weight does not get overlooked. “Given that business aircraft are productivity tools built for specific missions, they are designed to be as light as possible, as that is a key factor in achieving the efficiencies that the marketplace demands,” he added.

But the Aviation Environment Federation’s Gazzard simply described the statement on weight as “meaningless.”