Business & GA, Commercial

Perspectives: Climate Uncertainties

By Rex J. Fleming, Ph.D. | January 1, 2008

The latest report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), political involvement and relentless media hype have created a juggernaut that is about to descend on the aviation industry.

The Europeans have a plan to force airlines to trade in carbon credits through emission trading schemes (ETS) with other industries that can more easily reduce their respective carbon footprints. These expensive schemes are illogical and ill advised for aviation at this time. The action plan suggested below is positive for those who care about aviation and the warming issue.

The warming of the planet has been attributed to the Industrial Age use of fossil fuels. In 1800, the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere was 280 parts per million by volume (ppmv). At the end of 2006, CO2 had increased 36.4 percent to the value of 382 ppmv (0.038 percent). The global averaged surface temperature increased less than 1 degree C in that period. However, climate model projections are interpreted to produce dire consequences for society.

The IPCC’s report on aviation in 1999 was quite negative and exacerbated the warming issue, citing CO2 emissions and contrails from jet engines as major problems.

A minority of esteemed scientists disputes many of the IPCC claims. There are uncertainties associated with the influence of contrails and other upper-atmosphere data issues that require further verification. The models do not have all the relevant physical processes included. Current climate models may require another 10 years of development and increased computer power in order to account for the many small scale features that are currently missing.

Individuals and industries can conserve energy now. Non-fossil fuel energy sources are being implemented and will significantly increase. CO2 can be sequestered from coal power plants and stored in old mines or under the sea floor. These ongoing actions alleviate the need to inflict ETS on the aviation industry, which contributes only 2 to 3 percent of the CO2 in the atmosphere.

A more pressing issue will be maintaining a thriving global economy in the wake of depleting fossil fuel reserves. Fossil fuel (oil, natural gas, coal) represents 80 percent of the total world energy supply consumed. Assuming constant production and consumption, studies indicate the number of years remaining in known reserves is 40 to 60 for oil, 60 to 80 for natural gas, and 160 to 200 for coal. The energy problem will be solved over time by using alternative and renewable sources. Bioethanol from carbon-based food stocks and cellulosic ethanol from inedible plants are examples. Ethanol is great for combustion engines, but not for jet engines — it doesn’t have the energy density required. Butanol has an energy density close to Jet A, but it will be some time before this or another bio-jet fuel is available.

A sustainable development plan must be in place to keep international commerce thriving. Aviation can help maintain economic stability. A prime example is "just-in-time" air shipments. These have improved the standard of living in many countries, as lower inventory costs and production efficiencies lower costs to consumers.

If airline operations exceed an established emissions cap, the difference must be financed by buying credits or decreasing operations. This is not a level playing field for aviation. Many industries capable of switching from coal to gas-fired plants can reduce emissions and reap significant trading credits. This does not apply to aviation, which has been financially driven to reduce fuel burn for many years. Utilities operate as monopolies, while airlines face fierce competition.

Aviation will continue its stellar performance of striving for fewer emissions through engine improvements and optimizing procedures to minimize delays. Aviation can provide something better than trading in carbon credits. Commercial aircraft can uniquely provide valuable environmental data over most of the global atmosphere where there is currently a lack of data of sufficient quality and quantity.

Most aircraft can provide wind and temperature information now. UPS and Southwest Airlines are providing environmental measurements in real time. This serves the interests of aviation as well as those of the global community in reducing uncertainty over climate change.

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