With carbon emissions on the rise once again, what role can the aviation industry play in tackling this global dilemma?

As representatives from around the world gathered in Bonn for COP23 in November, the findings were anything but promising. After 2014-16 proved to be relatively quiet years in terms of carbon emissions, a 2% increase is expected for 2017, thanks largely to China, whose emissions are expected to register a 3.5% increase. This dealt a bitter blow to the Paris Agreement of 2015, which aims at keeping the global temperature increase below 2 degrees Celsius.

According to the International Energy Agency, Qatar’s per capita CO2 emissions (35.73 tonnes) is the highest in the world. This made developments at the Qatar Sustainability Week, held at the Qatar National Convention Centre, from October 28 – November 4, 2017 all the more important. The carbon management steps taken by Qatar Airways at Hamad International Airport were part of the presentations during the eight-day event.

The international aviation industry contributes around 2% of global carbon dioxide emissions. The aviation industry has set itself incremental targets for reductions in carbon emissions, which are:

  • Improving aviation fuel efficiency by 1.5% each year from 2009 to 2020
  • Achieve carbon neutral growth in international aviation from 2020
  • Reduce net CO2 emissions by 50% by 2050

The aviation industry is pursuing a multi-layered strategy to meet these targets, which include innovations in aircraft design, technology and the introduction of sustainable aviation fuels; more efficient aircraft operations during flight and while on the ground; infrastructure improvements, including modernised air traffic management systems. Finally, the industry is also adopting a global market-based measure to facilitate airlines’ contribution to carbon neutrality through filling any gap in emission reductions through carbon offsetting projects.

Importance of CORSIA

Qatar was one of the 72 member states to be part of the landmark Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) agreement at the 39th session of the International Civil Aviation Assembly held in Montreal in October 2016. As the first global sectoral agreement to address CO2 emissions, CORSIA aims to enable carbon neutral growth in international aviation from 2020. It is an offset scheme, which will require that airlines purchase and retire independently certified carbon credits to offset net carbon dioxide emissions above their emission level in 2020. This will enable zero net increase in carbon emissions from international aviation from 2020, while continuing to support the growth in passenger numbers and flights necessary to maintain national and global economic development.

Artificial borders

Along with the maritime industry, international aviation is unique because of its trans-boundary characteristics, i.e., it is not possible to attribute the emissions resulting from international flights to any specific country. CORSIA therefore has been designed to overcome the challenge of national boundaries within an international context by enabling individual airlines to manage the emissions resulting from trans-boundary flights. Thus CORSIA can run in parallel with the carbon reduction schemes made by individual countries without compromising a nation’s commitments to the Paris Agreement.

Global air navigation services

Collaboration between all sectors within the aviation sector is essential in order to succeed in delivering its commitments to reduce carbon emissions.  Air navigation service providers make a critical contribution to enabling airlines to reduce emissions.  Examples of the ways in which the air traffic management sector contribute, include:

  • New air traffic management technologies which automate how safe separation distances between aircraft are maintained to reduce ‘stacking’ and associated fuel consumption when preparing to land at busy airports
  • Performance based navigation systems use satellites to allow aircraft to optimise the efficiency of routes around airports to reduce CO2 emissions
  • Air traffic controllers offer tactical directions and flexible use of congested airspace to ensure most efficient route selection at the time of use
  • Careful planning enables air traffic controllers to adopt advanced landing methods, which optimises the balance between noise and carbon emissions.

Sustainable aviation fuels

The aviation industry recognises the crucial role of sustainable biofuels in the long-term reduction of carbon emissions from aviation and the achievement of the aviation industry’s carbon reduction goals by 2050. International Air Transport Association (IATA) estimates that bio-aviation fuels could reduce CO2 emission by up to 80% on a full lifecycle basis compared to convention fossil fuels. If commercial aviation were to source 6% of its fuel from biofuel by 2020, it would reduce CO2 emissions by 5%.

Sustainable aviation fuels can be sourced through processing of biomass such as waste materials through the use of new generation substances, such as plants, including algae, jatropha or camelina. The pathways for development and certification of sustainable aviation’s fuels can be expensive, with the total cost running into tens of millions of dollars.

Collaborations between airlines, aircraft and engine manufacturers, fuel producers and governments have already enabled thousands of commercial flights to take place using blends of bio aviation fuel.  The role of governments will be central in supporting further research and development in sustainable bio-aviation fuels through providing financial incentives to the industry and in reducing costs through economies of scale.

Role of Qatar Airways

Qatar Airways (QA) has previously worked in partnership with Qatar University and the Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) to complete phase 1 of a bio-aviation fuel research project. This research, led by QSTP, has involved the collection and identification of more than 98 strains of algae unique to Qatar, classifying the productivity of each for biomass growth potential and resilience to local climatic conditions. All parties are currently considering a second stage of research regarding a pilot phase, to test the biofuel production pathway and gauge the commercialisation potential.

QA measures the carbon emissions associated with all business operations within, to and from Doha, as well as selected destination airports. Aviation fuel is its biggest source of carbon emissions, representing up to 97% of total emissions during 2016-17.

Qatar Airways’ fuel saving initiatives supported a 1.4% efficiency improvement in 2016-17 compared to 2015-16. The fuel efficiency initiatives include investing in one of the most modern, fuel efficient fleets in the sky; investing in efficient technology, including winglets (fin-like surface enhancements reducing aerodynamic drag); carefully planning the fuel required for each flight, thus minimising the weight of unnecessary fuel; reducing weight, e.g., extra potable water and surplus magazines reduces the fuel required to carry unnecessary weight; using reduced engines to taxi on arrival at Doha; and using pre-conditioned air and fixed electrical power instead of energy-intensive, on-board engines while waiting for departure.

The content for this article has been provided by Qatar Airways; additional reporting by Udayan Nag.