Business aviation and the environment: Business aviation ponders its impact on the environment–and the public perception of that impact

 - April 30, 2007, 5:37 AM

Business aircraft manufacturers and operators had better tackle their environmental image sooner rather than later. Global warming has replaced noise as the number-one aviation-related environmental concern. The diagram on page 44 shows how easy it could be for green lobbies to persuade the public that the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by business jets is even less acceptable than that of airliners.

As an Airbus official recently pointed out, public acceptance of certain behaviors changes over time. He noted that banning smoking in public areas would have been unthinkable 30 years ago. Now it is socially unacceptable, even in Italy and France, to smoke in an office or a hotel lobby. Whether or not its practitioners choose to recognize it yet, the question for business aviation is how the segment can remain socially acceptable in an era in which environmental issues have come to the fore.
Business aviation associations and business jet manufacturers will have to make real efforts to support their claim that their contribution to greenhouse gas emissions is small.

Steve Brown, NBAA senior v-p for operations, emphatically rejected the notion that the business aviation industry should consider itself part of the global warming problem. He would concede only that less CO2-intensive technologies should be developed. “I do not believe there will be a time when business aviation becomes socially unacceptable,” he stated, pointing out the benefits it provides in terms of business and connecting people.

“Flying is part of a global society, and it will continue to grow,” he said, drawing a parallel between the sector’s response to CO2 emissions and noise. “We have done a lot to be even better neighbors; for example, crews are cautious about noise on the airport surface and start the APU later,” Brown said. Moreover, pilots avoid flying at low altitudes above populated areas when possible.

According to Brown, business aviation’s demonstrated commitment to addressing an environmental issue such as noise is evidence that it can make efforts against CO2 emissions, as well. “Our responsibility is to make flying as environmentally friendly as possible,” Brown said. However, he did not speak of a specific objective or predict the obstacles that effort could encounter.

In 2005, the UK-based Greener by Design group raised questions about the environmental impact of ultra-long-range flights. The large fuel load needed for flying long distances makes the aircraft heavier, increasing fuel burn and thus the amount of fuel needed for the trip.

Greener by Design studied the feasibility of replacing ultra-long-range non-stop flights with multistage ones and compared the environmental impact of each technique. In terms of fuel efficiency, according to these researchers, 2,700-nm legs are optimum. Of course, the tradeoff against multiple takeoff and climbout phases needs careful study, but an early Greener by Design estimate of the fuel saved by fragmenting an 8,000-nm nonstop trip into shorter legs yielded a figure of nearly 40 percent.

Also, scientists at several aerospace research organizations have suggested that flying more slowly would save a lot of fuel. As a result, early this decade Boeing dropped its plans for the Sonic Cruiser. The next plan, the ultra-efficient 787, has proved highly successful. Moreover, prolonged studies by Gulfstream, Dassault and Aerion have yet to result in the launch of a supersonic business jet. However, the amount of carbon saved, versus the additional time spent traveling, becomes a more important consideration as environmental awareness grows. Brown suspects that since the purpose of air travel is to save time, the public will not accept slower journeys.

Unducted fans, such as those that were flight-tested in the late 1980s, are another option that could reduce fuel burn. However, they were bad offenders on another environmental front: noise.

It seems NBAA has yet to establish a position on means of reducing CO2 emissions beyond technology and small operational changes. When asked about the European plans to include aviation in a CO2 trading plan, Brown responded that business aviation accounts for only 1 percent of aviation emissions. “A cost/benefit analysis is needed,” he said, suggesting that some other sectors might be better candidates for inclusion in the trading plan. Whether such a plan is workable for business aircraft operators remains to be seen, Brown noted. He added that NBAA has not taken a position on the carbon taxation option.

EBAA, the European counterpart of NBAA, is taking a different tack in considering the environmental responsibility of operators in Europe. “We are studying how we can play our part,” CEO Brian Humphries told AIN. While he made it clear he feels that business aviation has been unfairly targeted, Humphries noted that the association is active in addressing environmental issues.

Asked about emissions per seat-nautical mile, he said, “The important thing is total emissions.” He sees business aviation as a minuscule contributor to greenhouse gas emissions because it operates small aircraft on direct routes. Moreover, the European business aircraft fleet is young and therefore cleaner than the average airliner.

Nonetheless, Humphries said, “We must do our duty.” He voiced concern about the European Commission’s plans to include business aviation (see related story on next page) in its CO2 trading plan. “Many of our members are small operators; trading would be unworkable for them,” he said, predicting that the administrative burden and associated cost would be unreasonable for such operators.

“As small emitters, we should be excluded, just as small ground powerplants [those under 20 megawatts] are,” Humphries said. EBAA experts are currently computing how much CO2 would not be captured by raising the current weight threshold. The association is lobbying for this threshold to be set at 20 seats or 20 metric tons (44,092 pounds), rather than the current 5,700 kilos (12,566 pounds). An Eclipse 500 has a 5,995-pound mtow, a Falcon 900DX 46,700 pounds.

“There are several ways to play our part,” Humphries explained. Offset, aggregation and zero-carbon fuel are options. The first means the offset price is added to the fuel’s base price. Aggregation is a plan whereby one organization acts on behalf of individual users in a trading scheme.

The third option is being tested in the UK. Users of corporate and executive aircraft there have launched a carbon-balancing program to recognize and offset the environmental impact of their operations. The idea is simple: to balance their carbon dioxide emissions, they will provide funds for activities that absorb carbon, such as forestry, or reduce carbon output through, say, use or introduction of alternative fuels or technology. The British Business and General Aviation Association (BBGA), which is working with EBAA to extend the effort, will oversee the program.

BBGA will work with conservation agency World Land Trust to support forest-based native and endemic wildlife and habitat projects, particularly in areas such as Ecuadorian rainforest, said chief executive Mark Wilson. The association is especially interested in fuel-based offsets, since aviation cannot currently use biofuels. One such offset program is a Brazilian project to enable ceramic industries to burn waste straw rice rather than native woods to generate thermal energy.

Technology-based offsets aim to reduce emissions from manufacturing and energy industries in areas where appropriate knowledge is not yet available. An example is the use of wind turbines in place of fossil fuel-burning power stations in southern India.

BBGA members will be able to contribute to the cost of counterbalancing carbon emissions–which the World Land Trust estimates to be £6.15 (about $12) per tonne, or about £0.015 ($0.03) for each liter of jet-A they burn. It would cost about £3 million ($6 million) a year to balance UK business- and general-aviation jet-A use, Wilson said.

Under the arrangement, operators would make their contributions via BBGA, which would monitor the system to ensure that all offset projects are ecologically sound. BBGA will retain about 2 percent of payments to cover administration and the cost of further environmental-policy development.

In establishing the arrangement, BBGA has signed memoranda of understanding with World Land Trust, to provide offsets, and with independent emissions- and sustainability-management advisor Eco Positive, to help with the program and with policy making.

Wilson says the project helps the planet and improves the image of business aviation. “It is critical to show we are taking action ourselves, if we are excluded from emissions-trading schemes.”

To some, this plan appears over-simplified. “While the idea of wind turbines in southern India makes sense, the only guaranteed way to get this type of offset is for the BBGA to invest in and own the clean-tech generation facility,” one educated observer told AIN. “Otherwise, the offset would have to be purchased at a cost that would be market-adjusted, getting more expensive as carbon becomes more valuable.”

More radically, some voices are encouraging business travelers to fly less frequently. “Is it really worth bridging the Atlantic for a single meeting when video conferencing is available?” asked Gérard Feldzer, the director of Paris’ Air and Space Museum and former Air France pilot. He is now a political counselor with Nicolas Hulot, an influential green lobbyist in the ongoing French presidential election campaign.

Hulot argues that it is time for aviation to take action. “We must tackle the problem before catastrophic situations emerge,” he warned. For example, a 0.5-degree C increase in the average temperature of the Earth will wash Bangladesh off the map.
Current estimates forecast an increase of 2 to 4 degrees C by 2100.

“To do nothing would be to express contempt for the planet’s vital problems,” Feldzer told AIN. Business jet manufacturers will soon have to show they are making efforts, he said, adding that if they do not, their leadership will be considered negligent. He cautioned that the offset programs now gaining popularity with the business aviation sector are insufficient to address the problem.

Feldzer promotes capping aviation emissions at their current level. Clearly, this cannot be accomplished by technology alone. “Such carbon-free technologies might be available in twenty years, but that is too late,” he said. So should governments look for ways to limit traffic growth? “Energy and airspace constraints will take care of this sooner rather than later,” he concluded.   

Emissions from Aviation

Estimates vary, but scientists believe that aviation accounts for between 2 and 4 percent of all human contributions to global warming. While carbon dioxide is the main contributor it is not the only one. For example, contrails have a net warming effect, though their precise effect has not yet been measured.

NBAA asserts that business aviation accounts for only 1 percent of aviation emissions. Eurocontrol estimates that business aviation in Europe accounts for 0.88 percent.