BILL READ reports on the highlights of the RAeS Annual Greener by Design conference on the latest developments in sustainable aviation.

[caption id="attachment_5647" align="alignnone" width="328" caption="A future green airliner conceopt. (NACRE)."][/caption] On 18 October, the Royal Aeronautical Society hosted its annual conference on aviation and the environment. Organised by the RAeS’ Greener by Design group, the event featured speakers from a wide variety of companies and organisations looking at the challenges currently facing the aviation industry in tackling the problem of climate change through the control of greenhouse gas emissions. The conference discussed a wide variety of topics from aircraft design to air traffic control but two of the more controversial topics that came under the spotlight were biofuels and the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS).  


[caption id="attachment_5648" align="alignnone" width="375" caption="Keith Williams, BA CEO outlines his airline's progress torwards green goals."][/caption] In recent years, biofuels have moved from the laboratory testing stage into practical trials. A number of airlines have used a blend of biofuels in both one-off test flights and on some regular commercial routes. Meanwhile. airlines and aircraft manufacturers have begun to take interest in organisations involved in biofuel production. British Airways’s new chief executive Keith Williams explained to the conference the airline’s involvement in the Solena biomass-to-biojet plant which, when it begins production in 2015, could provide enough biofuel to supply BA’s aircraft out of London City. In addition, the company is working with Rolls-Royce to study the performance characteristics of biofuels. The engine test programme is scheduled for three months in 2012 and the results will be made publically available to increase industry knowledge. While there has been much hype in the media on how biofuels will solve all aviation’s future fuel problems, there are indications that it may not be the ‘magic bullet’ that was hoped for. One already well-publicised problem is that of production. The majority of current biofuel solutions are based on vegetable oils which require land to grow the feedstocks. To produce biofuels on an industrial scale, huge amounts of land will be needed – the cultivation of which might potentially conflict with food production. There is also going to be a long-lead time required to research, source, develop and certify new alternative fuels – which could be as much as 20 years. Secondly, there is the issue of demand. John Cooper, director of transport energy policy – Europe, BP reminded delegates that aviation is not the only industry wanting alternative fuel sources and that it will have to compete with other users for future supplies. A third problem was highlighted by Dr Naresh Kumar, chief environment officer of Rolls-Royce . “Quality control is also going to be an issue,” he explained. “Today’s aviation fuel comes from a comparatively small number of suppliers, whereas alternative fuels may come from a much larger number of sources.” Rolls-Royce spends £923m a year on R&D, two thirds of which addresses the environment. As well as testing the suitability of using blends of ‘drop-in’ alternative fuels to power engines, Rolls-Royce is also looking at such issues as the sustainability of producing such fuels in industrial quantities. Biofuels will also not solve the problem of reducing CO2. While some feedstocks will absorb CO2 from the atmosphere while growing, the biofuels created from them may generate as much, if not more, CO2 than the fossil fuels they are intended to replace. [caption id="attachment_5649" align="alignnone" width="333" caption="On 3 October Iberia conducted a biofuel demonstration flight. But can production be scaled up quickly enough? (Jose Manuel)."][/caption] Then there is the problem of cost. Even with the current high prices of conventional fuel, the cost of alternative fuels is still much higher. Given the already high cost of fuel, there is little commercial incentive for airlines to switch to new fuels that cost even more. However, at the moment, there is no alternative way forward. “The problem with aircraft is that they do not have an alternative for liquid fuels,” explained Dr Kumar of Rolls-Royce. “Aircraft fuel is not just used for power but also for hydraulics and coolants. While there has been progress in research and development of electric and hydrogen-cell-powered aircraft, the aircraft under study have been small in size. For larger and long-haul aircraft, liquid fuel remains the only option.  

The ETS controversy

[caption id="attachment_5650" align="alignnone" width="375" caption="Panel discussion at the conference."][/caption] Another current controversial topic in environmental circles is the inclusion of airlines in the European Union (EU) Emissions Trading System (ETS) For many years, there has been much debate among economists on the theory of the control of pollution through market-based measures (MBMs) in which an artificial price is put on carbon emissions to reflect their effect on the environment. However, until recently there was little interest in creating such a market in practice. Pioneering the first MBM experiment in the real world is the European Union which has set up the Emissions Trading System (ETS) in which different industries can buy and sell carbon credits. Originally aviation was not included in ETS but, concerned by the threat of alternative measures, such as ‘green taxes’, European airlines asked to be included and are scheduled to join the scheme from 1 January 2012. After that time, any leg of a flight taking off or landing in the EU is covered, irrespective of nationality. Under the current ETS rules, any leg of a flight taking off or landing in the EU is covered, irrespective of nationality. At the end of every year, airlines will have to pay for every tonne of CO2 generated at an initial cost of around Euro 10 per tonne, although they will be given some free credits to start with. However, the inclusion of airlines in ETS has proved to be a political ‘hot potato’ as the EU has insisted that all airlines using European airspace should be included. As the deadline approaches, there have been protests from airlines trade organizations and governments around the world claiming imposing a regional environmental scheme on non EU members is unfair and contravenes international law. Some countries, such as China, have even threatened to impose trade sanctions. "The key question is what will the ETS cost the aviation sector?” stated Andreas Arvanitakis, associate director, Thomson Reuters, Point Carbon. He estimated that there will be a shortfall in 2012 of 82m tonnes of CO2, which will cost airlines flying in and out of Europe a total of €846m. Between 2012 and 2020, airlines may have to pay up to €18bn for ETS but this may vary depending on changes in the price of carbon emissions. [caption id="attachment_5651" align="alignnone" width="327" caption="Airlines flying into the EU, such as this Cathay Pacific 747 will pay extra under ETS."][/caption] “ETS is the right concept but wrong approach,” added Mark Watson of Far East carrier Cathay Pacific, going on to say how the scheme is complex and costly and will lead to competitive distortion. He cited the example of two flights between the UK and Hong Kong, one of which has a stopover in Dubai. Although the direct flight is 16% shorter than the Middle East route and therefore produces less CO2, it will attract a 76% higher carbon charge, Although the EU's current stance is that the inclusion of all airlines in ETS is internationally legal, it is not impossible that the threat or reality of a trade war with other nations may cause the European authorities to revise the scheme to exclude overseas airlines or even to abandon it altogether.  

What is the alternative?

Detractors of the ETS scheme have claimed that the aviation industry should wait until a representative international airline industry organisation – such as ICAO or IATA – can set up a global scheme which applies to everyone equally. However, there seems to be little interest in pursuing such an idea further. The practicalities of creating a universal carbon trading scheme are formidable. The organisation in charge of creating it would need to sort out ground rules, such as who pays for the scheme, what baselines to adopt and the incorporation of existing regional schemes. However, the really hardest part will be to get all the stakeholders to agree on how overall CO2 emissions could be reduced without distorting national and commercial competitive advantages. “It will not be possible to reach an agreement on a global approach without demonstrating how the needs of developing countries will be taken into account,” states Tim Johnson , director of Aviation Environment Federation. The prospects of creating a global scheme, at least in the near future, are not looking good. “The focus of debate in 2011 is negative, focusing on criticism of the only regional mechanism to reduce emissions,” says Tim Johnson. “I want ETS to survive these political challenges but there is the risk of it going away altogether. The principle of ETS is sound and it would be a step back to cancel it. Trying to find a global solution to aviation emissions is a challenge, as is the whole global warming debate, but we need to find practical solutions.”  

Fuel from the air?

  [caption id="attachment_5653" align="alignnone" width="375" caption="AFS stand at the conference."][/caption] An intriguing alternative to the challenge of creating new aviation fuels was offered by Berkshire-based company Air Fuel Synthesis (AFS) which had a stand outside the conference. AFS is currently undertaking research into the creation of liquid fuels from air using renewable energy. A small unit powered by electricity generated from renewable energy sources draws in water and air from the atmosphere. The air is fed through a CO2 filter which extracts carbon dioxide while the water goes through a hydrogen electrolyser to create hydrogen. The hydrogen and water are combined in a fuel reactor to create methanol which can then be converted into different types of liquid fuel. AFS is currently working on a pilot project in Teeside. “Because air or water are available in almost unlimited quantities, fuel produced by our system will have the advantage that it is unaffected by geo-politics or the availability of raw materials,” comments AFS’ director of research and development, David Benton. AFS is currently seeking financial backers and technology partners to move to the next stage of establishing a large scale supply chain. A full report on the RAeS Greener by Design conference will be published in the forthcoming December 2011 issue of Aerospace International.  

ETS - A380 sales in the balance?

Europe's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) may be already having knock-on economic effects as other countries respond to the imposition of this scheme. For instance at the Paris Air Show Airbus announced a ten-aircraft A380 order from a undisclosed customer - widely believed to be China's Hong Kong Airlines. However it remains to be fully confirmed and openly announced as China has reportedly blocked any more progress in the deal.  While the order remains on the books and has  not been cancelled, sources say that at the moment the order is stuck in limbo as China waits to see whether EU will revise its plans for ETS under this pressure. TIM ROBINSON

Bill Read
21 October 2011