Carbon Restrictions Poised to Take Wing

Before long, the airlines of the United States may be flying in environmentally friendlier skies -- whether they like it or not. The European Union, which has taken several steps to address climate-change concerns, is preparing to crack down on...


The airline industry, long concerned with fuel costs, says the market already provides all the motivation it needs to be environmentally friendly, because more efficient engines require less fuel. The industry also argues that the EU's plan could impose significant costs on companies that are struggling.

An analysis by the investment firm Lehman Brothers said the EU plan could increase the cost of fuel and might force airlines to fly less overall. But Lehman also noted that the plan could spur fuel-saving technologies and more efficient operating procedures.

With the public becoming more attuned to climate change and, perhaps, aviation's role in it, some airlines, like their cousins in the automotive industry, have already made moves to show that they are paying attention. Delta Air Lines, for instance, has started a carbon offset program: In exchange for a few extra dollars on a passenger's ticket price, Delta will plant trees along the Gulf Coast.

And this summer the Air Transport Association, the group that lobbies for the largest U.S. airlines, created a new position: vice president for environmental affairs, filled by aviation lawyer Nancy Young.

"We have huge market incentives to minimize our greenhouse gas emissions. They're directly related to fuel burn," she said. "We're not embarrassed that our economic interests and our environmental interests line up."

Young said the industry is focused on reducing pollutants by using more efficient engines. She said that since 1978 the industry as a whole has improved its fuel efficiency by 103 percent and that all the major U.S. airlines have committed to an additional 30 percent improvement by 2025.

Historically, fuel efficiency in aircraft has been achieved primarily by building lighter airframes with new metals and composite materials and by tweaking engines to burn hotter and as a result use less fuel.

But there are questions about whether jet engines, basically refinements of 50-year-old designs, can be made much more fuel efficient than they are already, or efficient enough to keep up with aviation's projected rate of growth and new emissions standards. Improvements now are mostly incremental, with no big breakthroughs.

"There are technological limits, yes," Young said. "That's part of our concern, we're so fuel efficient already. We're going to get better, but we have to invest a lot of money to buy new aircraft."

Young said the industry probably would not be able to reduce its emissions quickly enough to comply with the proposed EU caps. Instead, companies would have to spend money on carbon credits that would otherwise be used to purchase more efficient technology.

Aircraft manufacturers, spurred by airlines' intense desire to be more efficient, have rolled out new designs such as the Boeing 787, which uses 20 percent less fuel than planes of comparable size, mostly because of the use of lightweight composite materials in its fuselage.

But new planes are expensive, and engine improvements can take a long time to show up in an airline's fleet. According to Lehman Brothers, it takes 10 to 15 years at minimum for an aircraft to be replaced.

Also, pressure to save money on fuel doesn't always yield the most environmental benefits, said a Senate Democratic aide knowledgeable on the issue. The addition of biofuels to kerosene jet fuel, for instance, would make it much cleaner-burning but no cheaper.

"Biofuels could have a real emissions benefit, but . . . there's no cost advantage," the aide said. "So there's very little driving airlines to go into biofuels right now."

Some are, however. Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand have expressed interest in using biofuels. And the Air Transport Association participates in the Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative, a government-industry partnership spearheaded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But there are no large-scale research efforts under way, said Wuebbles. The Air Force is interested in fuel supplements, but mainly to reduce dependence on foreign oil rather than to cut emissions. The Air Force has said it wants its fleet to fly on just 50 percent petroleum by 2010. Also, its primary focus is on synthetic additives that could emit as much carbon dioxide as regular jet fuel.

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