In this short blog, we will explore how Boeing’s strategy is affected by global warming, and the possible long-term opportunity in biofuel.
Environmental Impact of Aviation
Transportation is one of the main economic sectors contributing to global warming. Per the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) 2014[i], 14.3% of the total worldwide emissions were caused by transportation.[ii]
Transportation emissions have more than doubled since 1970 and are expected to continue to grow, with more than 10% of total transportation emissions caused by domestic and international aviation.
As other transportation sectors progress towards sustainable energy and operations and expected to reduce emissions (for example, the automotive industry focuses on shared rides and electric cars), the portion of aviation emissions is expected to grow. Moreover, the demand for commercial aviation is only expected to increase. In fact, per the International Air Transport Association (IATA), passenger demand is expected to double in the next 20 years[iii]. Economic growth, increasing worldwide urbanization and the emergence of global businesses all contribute to the increase in demand, and highlight the importance of reducing GHG emissions caused by aviation.
Boeing and the Motivation to Reduce Emissions
Boeing, founded in 1916, has delivered more than 17,000 commercial airplanes to hundreds of airline companies around the world.[iv] In 2015, the company manufactured and delivered 762 commercial airplanes[v], more than any other company in the world, including its main competitor Airbus[vi].
Many factors contribute to Boeing’s motivation to reduce emissions:
- Rules and regulations limiting carbon emissions. The Kyoto Protocol, which was adopted by the UN in 1997 provided incentives for limiting GHG emissions. Though the protocol did not limit emissions from international aviation, the international effort to reduce emissions by legislation continues. On February 2016, the International Civil Aviation Organization of the UN released a draft rule of a new emission standard for commercial aviation, aiming to reduce emissions by 4% by 2024.[vii]
- Economic upside. Airplanes with better fuel efficiency are not only environmental friendly, they also consume less fuel and therefore have improved flight range and lower operational costs. These strong upsides can affect airliners’ decisions when ordering new airplanes.
- Competition and public opinion. Public awareness for global warming is very high, with consumers’ decisions driven by how “environmentally friendly” products and services are. With Airbus’s own green initiatives[viii], Boeing cannot stay behind.
Boeing had put heavy emphasis on environmental issues, as detailed in the company’s 2016 environmental report.[ix]
Most effective steps thus far focused on efficient aircraft design: composite materials that reduce weight; improved aerodynamic design; and new turbo-fan engines with improved fuel efficiency. Using these methods, Boeing introduced the 787-Dreamliner in 2009, which reduced fuel consumption by up to 20% compared with the 767. However, design improvement has its limits – and the use of fossil fuels in the industry is still the only option. Or is it?
The Case for Biofuel
Biofuels derive from biomass material such as plants and waste. They offer large savings in CO2 emissions because as plants that are the source for biofuel grow, they absorb CO2. That way, in a life-cycle of biofuel, the total carbon footprint can be drastically reduced, as shown in the next illustration.
Researches executed by the Air Transport Action Group, as well as by Boeing and Airbus, show that sustainable aviation biofuel has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by 50-80% on a life-cycle basis compared with fossil fuel.
Biofuel has proven feasibility as fossil fuel replacement, as opposed to other alternatives such as solar or electric power. It does not require extreme changes in current airplane design. Approved biofuel performs as well as traditional fuel, with some advantages such as higher energy content and lower freezing point. Since 2008, successful test flights have been conducted with fuel mixes comprised of up to 20% biofuel. Regulatory issues have also progressed, with ASTM approval for usage of biofuel in commercial flights[xi].
Boeing promotes many activities to commercialize biofuel in the near future: research and development of sustainable feedstock, expanding global biofuel supply, advocating for policies and regulations, reducing production costs and more. Progress has been significant.
Long-term, I believe the company should focus on a combined approach of airplane design and biofuel. Shifting to planes that run on 100% biofuel requires additional technological leap, with substantial R&D investment. But this move will be an important step towards truly sustainable and green commercial aviation.
[i] IPCC Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change Chapter 8: Transport https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg3/ipcc_wg3_ar5_chapter8.pdf
[ii] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, 2014, summary for policymakers https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/wg3/ipcc_wg3_ar5_summary-for-policymakers.pdf
[iii] International Air Transport Association, http://www.iata.org/pressroom/pr/Pages/2015-11-26-01.aspx
[v] Boeing: Boeing Achieves Record Commercial Airplane Deliveries, 2015. http://boeing.mediaroom.com/2016-01-07-Boeing-Achieves-Record-Commercial-Airplanes-Deliveries-in-2015
[vi] Airbus: Airbus exceeds targets in 2015. http://www.airbus.com/presscentre/pressreleases/press-release-detail/detail/airbus-exceeds-targets-in-2015-delivers-the-most-aircraft-ever/
[vii] Scientific American: U.N. Agency Proposes Greenhouse Gas Standard for Aircraft https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/u-n-agency-proposes-greenhouse-gas-standard-for-aircraft/
[ix] Boeing: 2016 Environmental Report http://www.boeing.com/resources/boeingdotcom/principles/environment/pdf/2016_environment_report.pdf
[x] Air Transport Action Group: Sustainable Aviation Biofuels http://www.atag.org/our-activities/sustainable-aviation-biofuels.html
[xi] ASTM: Aviation Fuel Standard Now Specifies Bioderived Components http://www.astmnewsroom.org/default.aspx?pageid=2524