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Carbon conscious

Boeing's environmental director on why dealing with climate change is increasingly important for the aviation industry.
COMMENT, Transportation

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Boeing's environmental strategy director, Bill Glover, on why dealing with climate change is increasingly important for the global aviation industry.

With commercial aviation growing as more planes become operational and passenger figures rise, holiday and business destinations will be responsible for ensuring continued development has a minimal effect on the environment.

In the UAE, passenger traffic reached record levels last year, with further increases expected during the coming months. Ensuring we capture all possible efficiencies through emerging technologies, air traffic management, local airport infrastructure and airline operations will be critical to minimising industry impacts on the planet's ecosystem.

Airlines in the region are doing their part, such as washing planes between flights to requesting optimised route structures to attain fuel and operating efficiency. To illustrate the point, carriers have begun tracking the requested routes against those they were assigned.

Some carriers estimate they would gain an extra 10% efficiency if their initial route requests were granted.
 

Many airlines are also improving their fleets by acquiring newer, more efficient aircraft, while retiring older models. When considering escalating fuel costs and mounting pressure for reduced greenhouse gas emissions, putting the issues into perspective is critical. The challenges are formidable, but not insurmountable.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is the most important greenhouse - and only Kyoto emission produced by aviation - gas. Some 2% of man-made CO2 is produced by commercial aviation.

The industry is taking action to keep CO2 emissions low in two ways: they either use less fuel or substances with lower carbon dioxide. As an industry we're focused on technological solutions that have demonstrated progress in both areas.

For Boeing, our environmental commitment begins with research and development into new technologies, while minimising the impact of aircraft emissions on the planet. Both are crucial to ensuring a safe, efficient and environmentally-progressive air transport system for future generations of travellers.

Progressive new aircraft, such as the Dreamliner 787 and 747-8 Intercontinental will deliver significant reductions in noise and fuel emissions, while demonstrating to passengers that aviation is doing its part. Demonstrating eco-commitment with innovation will help to counter passengers' guilt when flying.

But environmental performance is not just a by-product of aircraft design; it's a deliberate effort that has driven us to continually improve fuel efficiency. We believe this is good business sense that coincidentally has environmental benefits. For each litre of unburned fuel, CO2 levels are reduced by some 3.2 litres.

To reduce fuel burn, the 787 design uses carbon fiber, making it lighter than comparably-sized aircraft. Less weight means less drag, allowing the Dreamliner to use 20% less fuel (on a per-passenger basis) than similarly-sized airplanes.

This equates to a 20% reduction in CO2 emissions. The plane's efficiency also leads to 60% less noise. Indeed, the 787 and 747-8 designers have introduced a lifecycle approach to ensuring the climate impact of both planes is lower than previous models.

In other technology areas, Boeing is helping develop a new generation of plant-based alternative and sustainable fuels that offer a lower carbon footprint. These new biofuels -or biojet - offer significant benefits when you consider a lifecycle approach.

Plant-based fuels absorb CO2 when the feed stocks are growing, meaning fuels produced through sustainable growth can reduce the industry's dependence on fossil fuels. They can also offer a 50-80% CO2 reduction during their lifetime.

But solutions take time, and while we're five to seven years from seeing these fuels becoming available for commercial use, the foundation is being laid today. Only recently, we conducted the first biofuel demonstration flight to prove its applicability to commercial aircraft.

Lastly, we must continue to push for improvements in the global air transportation system. Even advanced aircraft will fall short of environmental performance expectations if they are forced to operate in an antiquated system with holding patterns, missed flights and less than optimised route patterns.

We are in this together and have a role to play. People want and expect to be able to move freely throughout the world, without the misguided guilt that unsubstantiated and inaccurate statistical reporting is placing upon them.

Not until we effectively replace misinformation with facts, data and technological solutions will we be able to say we've solved a crucial element of the climate change puzzle.

There's a big difference between saying you are a leader and being a leader, which is best demonstrated by how we behave. As commercial aviation strives to do better, Boeing will continue playing its part in the process.

Billy Glover is managing director of Environmental Strategy for Boeing Commercial Airplanes, a business unit of The Boeing Company.

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