Emissions rules likely to take center stage at ICAO conference

 - August 29, 2007, 6:18 AM

It may sound unreal, but it seems likely that future pilots could use a takeoff checklist sequence that reads “V1, rotate, V2, gear, climb power, check NOx, CO2, noise, flaps…”

While we currently can’t display the values of nitrous oxide, carbon dioxide and noise on the flight deck, engineers are likely working on it, because those values are direct measurements of our “environmental footprints” and could well become critical future yardsticks of aircraft performance.

Over the years, restrictions on the operation of noisy airplanes have become tighter, with the phase-outs of Stage I and II aircraft and the growing pressure to limit earlier aircraft that marginally qualify under Stage III. However, until recently aviation hasn’t been the focus of increased public concern about engine emissions. Within the International Civil Aviation Organization, there have been steadily increasing limitations on nitrogen (NOx) emissions, but these have been aimed at large engines and directed primarily at reducing their visible effects and their contribution to lower-altitude air pollution and smog.

Things have changed, however, and the impact of all greenhouse gases has taken center stage. While in the past there was speculation about the possibility of stricter emission regulations, there was never any immediate cause for concern. Future regulation is now a lot closer than we might have thought.

Peter Ingleton, director of IBAC’s ICAO liaison office, has for some years been monitoring the change in public and government attitudes toward aviation’s effect on the environment. While IBAC is still formulating its policy about the subject, Ingleton gave his own observations of the situation at July’s Canadian Business Aviation Association convention in Calgary.

He pointed out that “the political, economic and business landscape has undergone profound change nationally and inter- nationally in the last 12 months and has radically altered the environmental debate. Powerful commercial, financial and industrial drivers have been unleashed.”

Two of the most noticeable influences were, he said, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and a major analysis of the financial effects of climate change commissioned by the UK government and written by Sir Nicholas Stern. Noting that both have gained wide public exposure, Ingleton remarked, “The [greenhouse gas] genie is now out of the bottle.”

This heightened exposure has accelerated interest in emission trading schemes, many of which are attractive to commercial organizations, a large number of which operate business aircraft. A wide variety of offset programs are now offered, from multimillion-dollar industrial commitments to personal contributions, such as voluntary offset contributions passengers can make through the airlines. Ingleton noted that a negative side effect of these schemes is that industry is now likely to be scrutinized more closely for its environmental compliance. He added that some firms have already been “outed” for dragging their feet on compliance.

He cautioned that flight operations staff must become much more familiar with their employer’s position and more sensitive to public perceptions of corporate aircraft as the perks of a “fat cat” lifestyle. Ingleton recommended that flight operations staff learn the company’s policy and agenda about greenhouse gases, understand how this policy affects the flight department, assess the department’s “carbon footprint,” support industry endeavors to develop a coordinated greenhouse gas strategy and ensure that the president/CEO does not get skewered as a hypocrite in the media on this issue.

Europe Takes Proactive Approach on Environment
Even before the Gore/Stern releases, the European Union (EU) was formulating an aviation emissions policy. Initially, this was aimed at covering EU-registered aircraft that weigh more than 12,500 pounds and operate within European airspace. The proposed plan was subsequently expanded to cover all civil aircraft registered outside the EU, a step that is strongly opposed by most non-European Union countries (including the U.S.) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA).

IATA has acknowledged that while aviation produces 2 to 3 percent of manmade emissions, modernizing and streamlining Europe’s multinational ATC system could reduce emissions by 12 million tonnes of CO2, while saving operators $4.5 billion. IATA director general Giovanni Bisignani concedes that aviation emissions will increase by 2050 but has set an airline industry target of zero emissions within the next 50 years, through the introduction of new technologies, fuels and other approaches. Should they come to pass these initiatives would undoubtedly also “lift all the boats” of corporate aviation.

Nevertheless, the EU is expected to request world aviation officials attending ICAO’s triennial assembly this month to consider setting new international standards much sooner–a move certain to generate vigorous debate. It is to be hoped that the ICAO Committee on Aviation Environmental Protection (CAEP) can prevent overreaction by international delegates to fear-mongering by special interests. According to Robert Shuter, TC’s director of international aviation and technical programs and Canada’s representative on the CAEP, the objective of advocates of greenhouse gas emission regulations and fees appears to be “to increase the cost of aviation to the point” that people use “more ‘environmentally responsible’ transportation alternatives.”

IBAC’s Environmental Issues Working Group, chaired by CBAA president Rich Gage, is currently developing a position paper titled Business Aircraft and the Environment to support the CAEP’s actions at ICAO.

Setting aside the question of whether global warming is a real threat–and that debate seems far from over–there are aspects of proposed environmental regulations and associated trading schemes that invoke the law of unintended consequences, some of which could be counterproductive. For example, most of today’s STARs, SIDs and other terminal procedures have been developed to minimize noise impacts and usually add several miles at lower altitudes to an aircraft’s flight path. This burns more fuel, thereby producing more CO2, while generating lower-altitude particulate emissions and NOx.

Techniques being developed to reduce NOx, such as increasing internal engine temperatures, can actually increase CO2 emissions by burning fuel more efficiently. Striking a sensible balance among NOx, CO2 and noise when establishing local air quality standards around airports, where NOx becomes a major factor, will require Solomon-like judgments.

And as IATA’s Bisignani emphasized, the optimum environmental solution must involve ATC, since streamlining procedures could yield major reductions in emissions. Typical of these are continuous-descent approaches, where power is reduced at
the top of descent and re-adjusted only as necessary on short final. UPS currently employs that technique. The FAA’s NextGen ATC project recognizes this concept and others, but it seems unlikely they will be operational before new emission rules take effect.

Shuter cautioned that new regulations could also result in restrictions or phase-outs of non-compliant aircraft, leading to devaluation of existing fleets and heavy investment in upgrades or higher-cost replacements. He added that while “one size fits all” legislation might apply in Europe, the notion of “more environmentally responsible transportation alternatives” is not realistic in Canada and other parts of the world.

Ingleton concluded that business aviation could be caught in a Catch-22 of its own success, where the predicted increase from more than 14,000 aircraft this year to 24,000 by 2016 “will generate a significant net increase in [greenhouse gas] emissions.” That raises the question of whether, to avoid losing older aircraft that fail to meet any new regulations, a company would be allowed to apply some of its emission trading scheme credits internally to offset their carbon footprints.

These and many other issues will need to be resolved as business aviation moves into the new, and often contradictory, world of environmental correctness.