Boeing and the move to low-emissions aircraft

The Boeing Company sees opportunities to lead the aerospace and defense industry in designing low-emissions fuel-efficient aircraft.

The aerospace and defense industry is one of the world’s largest greenhouse gas contributors. Aviation sources alone account for 2% of total carbon dioxide emissions.[1] In response to growing awareness of the challenges posed by global warming, the US Department of Defense (DOD) has started placing greater importance on the need to recognize and prepare for the challenges of climate change in the years to come. In January 2016, the DOD Directive 4715.21 tasked a number of key leaders and subsets of the organization with a range of climate change-oriented initiatives, including increased scrutiny of “materials acquisition and supply.”[2]

The Boeing Company is a key player in the aerospace and defense industry. Boeing is a $96 billion company that provides a variety of aviation products and services such as commercial airplanes, military aircraft, network and space systems, and IT services.[3] It employs 161,400 workers in the US and in a variety of countries worldwide.[4] There are few small companies in the aerospace and defense industry; Boeing’s competitors include other large multinational corporations like Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, and Airbus Group.[5] As such, Boeing is a crucial contributor to aviation technology worldwide.

Boeing is particularly susceptible to criticism over greenhouse gas emissions. Over two-thirds of Boeing’s revenues come from sales to commercial airlines, a market that is increasingly criticized for its role in contributing to global climate change.[6] In response to growing concerns, Boeing has published a separate “Environment Report” each year since 2008, which stresses initiatives such as fuel efficiency put forth by the company.[7] As a company, Boeing has made a significant effort to provide greater transparency into the effects of their production process and how the company will reduce environmental impact.

Boeing’s leadership reframes the pressure to design low-emission aviation products as an opportunity rather than a threat. Boeing’s 2015 Environmental Report takes note of the close connection between transportation costs, fuel costs, and fuel efficiency.[8] In other words, the more fuel-efficient an aircraft, the lower the fuel costs will be to the airliner, and the more cost savings can be passed on to the customer – all while reducing emissions. Scott Carson, the former CEO of Boeing, notes:

“Over the past 50 years, the efficiency of commercial jets has risen an astounding 70%. This means that carbon emissions per mile flown have dropped 70% — all without a regulatory requirement for greenhouse gas emissions.”[9]

In this case, the interests are aligned between Boeing, the airline industry, and the global citizen concerned about the effects of carbon emissions. Each party has an incentive to reduce emissions without the need for excessive regulation. The 2015 Environmental Report mentions various design programs including improvements to the “Dreamliner Family,” the 747-8, the 737-MAX, and the 777X aircraft models, which will make them between 10 and 30 percent more efficient than the original models.[10]

Recently, Boeing has begun exploring possibilities in the field of renewable energy technology. In particular, they approached NASA with the idea of jointly developing possibilities for an onboard fuel cell that converts byproducts of the jet fuel burning process into additional electricity for the aircraft.[11] In the years to come, Boeing could explore additional opportunities to design products that both reduce emissions and generate energy to meet growing demand. For example, Lockheed Martin, one of Boeing’s key competitors, has made an unprecedented foray into the field of renewable energy generation: they are developing a buoy project that generates enough electric power from ocean wave movements to power 10,000 homes.[12]

Going forward, Boeing can make a considerable impact on reducing emissions in the future, especially given that the company accounts for a sizeable fraction of the 2% emissions from the airline industry in general. First, the company should continue the push for aviation innovations that encourage long term gains in fuel efficiency. Second, the company should try to achieve 0% growth in carbon emissions for its production process by 2020, in order to match the gains in low-emissions aircraft with gains in their own production efficiency. Third, Boeing should continue to explore opportunities in alternative energy sources, as that represents a low-emissions and low-cost energy source for future aircraft.

 

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[1] Air Transport Action Group. “Facts and Figures.” Web. November 4, 2016. Retrieved from http://www.atag.org/facts-and-figures.html.

[2] US Department of Defense. “DOD Directive 4715.12: Climate Change Adaptation and Resiliance.” Effective January 14, 2016.

[3] The Boeing Company. (2015). Form 10-K 2015. Retrieved from https://www.sec.gov/Archives/edgar/data/12927/000001292716000099/a201512dec3110k.htm

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] The Boeing Company. “2015 Environmental Report.” Retrieved from http://www.boeing.com/resources/boeingdotcom/principles/environment/pdf/2015_environment_report.pdf.

[8] Ibid. Page 10.

[9] Carson, Scott. “How Boeing Fights Climate Change.” The Wall Street Journal. May 23, 2009. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB124303177241948493.

[10] The Boeing Company. 2015 Environmental Report. Page 11.

[11] NASA. “NASA is catalyst for hydrogen technology.” October 21, 2014. Retrieved from http://climate.nasa.gov/news/2160/nasa-is-catalyst-for-hydrogen-technology/.

[12] Forbes. “Lockheed Backs World’s Largest Wave Energy Project.” February 11, 2014. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/williampentland/2014/02/11/lockheed-backs-worlds-largest-wave-energy-project/#13d5057912e4.

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4 thoughts on “Boeing and the move to low-emissions aircraft

  1. Great article, and I agree that a push toward more sustainable aircraft is a key strategic pillar for the airline industry writ large. I do think that there are other factors companies like Boeing could take a look at as well. One would be to work with the FAA and ICAO to develop a more efficient aircraft routing system which would shave thousands of hours of flight time off of Boeing’s schedule each day. Currently, air traffic control is a relatively inefficient system that does not make full use of GPS systems in routing aircraft, relying heavily on ground-based beacons. Reform of this system would require heavy investment, but I think it’s a necessary step.

    I am also skeptical that there is much room to see drastic emission improvements in current jet engine technology. While aircraft are becoming lighter and more fuel efficient, the improvements are largely incremental and we have not seen breakthrough advances in quite some time (for instance, the 787 saw only a 15% increase in fuel efficiency, and we are a long way away from a successor to this version). I think an area to explore is in breakthrough sustainable technologies, such as lighter-than-air aircraft and solar powered aircraft. While these are far from being commercially viable at this time, I think that long-term solutions will require integration of these technologies in order to significantly curb emissions.

  2. Great article and thanks for sharing. As someone with virtually no knowledge of this industry, I did not realize that building airplanes for commercial purposes was such a core part of Boeing’s business. I also did not realize the impact that the aerospace and defense industries have on greenhouse emissions worldwide. It definitely makes sense to me why the interests of Boeing, airlines, and consumers would all benefit from more efficient planes. I would love to learn if Boeing or other defense contractors have signed R&D partnerships with commercial airline companies. Since a low emission plane would be such a large competitive advantage for the airline which utilized it first, I would imagine these airline companies would have incentives to help fund more groundbreaking research!

  3. Thanks for the post! It seems pretty rare to find a situation when incentives align well enough to not require regulation for something like Climate change. I remember visiting the Boeing factory in Everett (where they build the Dreamliners and other bigger aircraft) and being in complete awe of all the different pieces that go together to build an airplane. What interested me the most was that Boeing used to manufacture its own engines but was forced to spin-out that business due to antitrust monopoly issues (since Boeing was already such a big player in the rather non-competitive airline industry). Since engines are such a critical part of the airplane, especially when it comes to fuel efficiency, I was wondering if Boeing was doing anything to actively incentivize their engine suppliers like Pratt & Whitney or Rolls Royce to get them along the same path to climate change.

  4. Thank you for the interesting post. I am also very curious to see whether airplane manufacturers actually are able to shift to alternative fuel sources to the extent that automobile manufacturers have given the limitations of what kind of alternative fuel airplanes can use. For example, given the fact that refueling/re-charing in the air or landing in the middle of a flight to refuel/re-charge is not feasible, this limits airplane manufacturers to fuel sources that can sustain the airplane for the hundreds/thousands of miles it travels. So it seems that much of the alternative fuel developed for automobile manufacturers would not work for airplanes, and it would take significant R&D to develop alternative fuel that would work for airplanes.

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