Spotlight on aviation CO2 emissions

By Emma Irvine

Climate change, resulting from emissions of CO2 amongst other factors, is a major topic of research here at Reading. This blog focusses on the emissions from one particular sector, aviation, and progress on tackling them.

I write this as the 2016 Farnborough Airshow is taking place, with major aircraft manufacturers such as Boeing and Airbus showcasing their latest technological innovations, and eco-efficiency is the buzzword. Just this week at Farnborough, General Electric tweeted that their technological developments to the engines on Boeing-737s make them 15% more fuel efficient. Not to be outdone by their US rivals, Airbus have been showing-off their A350-XWB which claims to be 25% more fuel efficient than its (unnamed) nearest competitor (although probably not when it’s doing this near vertical take-off).

Back in 2009, when 2020 seemed a long way off and 2050 the distant future, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) set itself a set of environmental targets which included: to achieve carbon neutral growth by 2020, and to reduce CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050 (relative to 2005 levels). Other international aviation organisations have similar pledges. So how is the industry doing? The European Environment Agency’s latest annual greenhouse gas report is not particularly encouraging. In 2014, emissions from international aviation rose by 1.4% while those from domestic aviation fell by 0.8%.

So while the technological developments from the manufacturers are encouraging, they aren’t enough by themselves. Amongst other initiatives to reduce CO2 emissions are increasing the use of biofuels (disappointingly, British Airways project to turn London’s rubbish into biofuel for their planes was recently scrapped) and improvements to air traffic management. In Europe, the big air traffic initiative takes the form of the Single European Sky Air Traffic Management Research (SESAR), which is aiming at a 2.8% reduction per flight in environmental impact as well as a 40% reduction in accident risk and 27% increase in capacity. Here at Reading University we are part of one of the new SESAR projects investigating the potential of reducing the overall environmental impact of European flights through optimising the routing of aircraft over Europe.  Having proven the feasibility of climate-optimised routing over the relatively unconstrained airspace of the north Atlantic, we are applying this novel concept to some of the busiest airspace in the world. With over 28,000 flights a day occurring in or passing through European airspace, optimising the routes to minimise their environmental impact will be quite a challenge.

This brings me to the ultimate in climate-optimal flight: Solar Impulse. This innovative aircraft produces zero CO2 emissions (or emissions of any kind) as it flies, being powered purely by solar energy it receives through the 17,000 solar cells in its wings. It’s currently about to embark on the final leg of its around the world tour, from Cairo to Abu Dhabi (you can follow its progress here). Setting records along the way, it made the first trans-Atlantic crossing without using fuel, flying from New York to Seville in 70 hours (at the same time achieving the more dubious accolade of ‘selfie of the year’). Although solar power is unlikely to prove the answer to aviation’s CO2 problems – at least with current technology – solar impulse is an inspiring demonstration project harnessing the power of ‘green’ energy. #futureisclean



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