Boeing – Innovative aviation giant fighting climate change

The climate change is undeniable. Boeing as an industry leader in the aviation sector has to face and solve serious challenges. But how does Boeing deal with these challenges and which steps has Boeing taken to tackle the upcoming problems? The following article describes the various initiatives this aircraft manufacturer has taken so far and outlines possible further steps.

With rising sea levels, shrinking ice sheets and an increasing number of heavy rainfall events, the climate change seems to be an inevitable result of our lifestyles. We produce, we consume, we travel – and all of that has an impact on the earth and our climate. Especially the transportation industry which produces 26% of the global CO2 emissions is one of the problems for our environment. (Chapmann, Lee: Transport and climate change: a review. In: Journal of Transport Geography 15 (2007). P.354-367, here p.355.)
Aviation is, next to the road transportation, one of the biggest contributors to this fundamental change and therefore is incredibly interesting to analyze because of its role in the climate change. (Chapmann: Transport and climate change, p.356.)

So the question arises how a company, that actually lives from ‘polluting’ our environment, is able to deal with these upcoming challenges. Boeing, a corporation that designs and manufactures products in the aviation sector, is trying to reduce its contributions to the climate change in multiple ways. (The Atlantic: A century in the sky. <http://www.theatlantic.com/sponsored/boeing-2015/acenturyin-the-sky/652/> (30.10.2016))

Graph, showing atmospheric samples contained in ice cores throughout the years
Graph, showing atmospheric samples contained in ice cores throughout the years.

In order to understand the steps Boeing is taking it is necessary to understand the pollution through aviation. Aviation is one of the fastest growing industries because of economic globalization, growth of global production and simple traveling. (Chapmann: Transport and climate change, p.360.) Air freight, for example, a big sector in this industry has tripled its total volume from 5.1 to 17.9 million metric tones between 1986-2000. (Neiberger, Cordula: Air Freight: Trends and Issues. In: Gössling, Stefan; Upham, Paul: Climate Change and Aviation: Issues, Challenges and Solutions. 2009. P.221-244, here p.221.) The problem hereby is that the chemicals are released into the sensitive upper atmosphere during the flight (Noland, Robert B.; Toumi, Ralf; Williams, Victoria: Reducing the climate change impacts of aviation by restricting cruise altitudes. In: Transportation Research Part D 7 (2002). P.451-464, here p.452.) – which is not only CO2 but also NOx, sulphate and soot particles that can be even more dangerous. (Lee, David S.: Aviation and Climate Change: The Science. In: Gössling, Stefan; Upham, Paul: Climate Change and Aviation: Issues, Challenges and Solutions. 2009. P.27-68, here p.33., as well as Fahey, David W.; Forster, Piers M.; Lim, L. Ling; Newton, Peter J.; Owen, Bethan; Sausen, Robert; Wit, Ron C.N.: Aviation and global climate change in the 21st century. In: Atmospheric Environment 43 (2009). P.3520–3537, here p.3521.)

Being aware of the problem the aviation industry has already started refining air craft operation specifications to include fuel savings attributes (e.g. continuous descent, weight reduction, flight planning accuracy) (Fahey, David W.; Forster, Piers M.; Lim, L. Ling; Newton, Peter J.; Owen, Bethan; Sausen, Robert; Wit, Ron C.N.: Aviation and global climate change in the 21st century. In: Atmospheric Environment 43 (2009). P.3520–3537, here p.3531.) and let air freight be transported in passenger airplanes (belly cargo). (Chapmann: Transport and climate change, p.361.) Establishing for example taxes on kerosene failed because of missing international consensus. (Chapmann: Transport and climate change, p.361.)

This is where Boeing comes to action. The corporation is addressing several components of pollution factors with key technology programs such as lightweight materials, aircraft emission, solar and fuel cells. Since 2002 CO2 emissions and energy consumption could be reduced by 31% on a revenue-adjusted basis. It also managed to cut back the fuel consumption of four carriers by 1.1 million pounds. Boeing also piloted in using biofuels in aircrafts and adapted clean technology already used by the ISS and satellites in order to find an efficient way to turn sunlight into electricity. By introducing blended winglets, a new technology, as well as providing retrofit performance improvement packages, CO2 emissions and the total fuel use could be reduced dramatically. (PricewaterhouseCoopers: Aerospace and Defense. Sector climate change responses. 2010 <https://www.pwc.co.uk/assets/pdf/climate-change-in-aerospace-defence.pdf> (30.10.2016), here p.7.)

With these examples, Boeing shows its desire to manufacture both for people and the environment. And in order to improve its own corporation, it is part of several organizations and sponsored leading experts and universities. In that way, Boeing has participated in the PEW Center on Global Climate Change Business Environmental Council and is a member of the US EPA Climate Leaders Program. They work closely together with 13 universities and institutions worldwide, the US Air force research lab and they are a founding member of the Aircraft Fleet Recycling Association. (PricewaterhouseCoopers: Aerospace and Defense. Sector climate change responses. 2010. <https://www.pwc.co.uk/assets/pdf/climate-change-in-aerospace-defence.pdf> (30.10.2016), here p.7.)

Besides these steps, there are further ways Boeing should consider in its fight against climate change. A big problem the aviation faces at the moment are contrails, which result in a warming at the surface. (Chapmann: Transport and climate change, p.361.) This could be minimized by moving the peak traffic periods to sunrise and sunset (Noland, Robert B.; Toumi, Ralf; Williams, Victoria: Reducing the climate change impacts of aviation by restricting cruise altitudes. In: Transportation Research Part D 7 (2002). P.451-464, here p.452.) – which is impossible for an aircraft manufacturing corporation like Boeing. Instead, they could use this knowledge and work not only on reducing CO2 emissions and fuel use, but also on reducing contrails. Another possibility could be electrical flying, which would be a great way to bring the established aviation industry to a new level and decrease both costs and emissions. With this approach, Boeing could not only eliminate the fuel use of their aircrafts but also be a pioneer in using green energy as a manufacturer in the aviation industry and gain a crucial competitive advantage.

The aviation sector is one of the fastest growing sectors and so it is a huge challenge to adapt and use all the released benefits. (Chapmann: Transport and climate change, p.362.) Nevertheless, Boeing has understood that there is need for action and innovation to both stay sustainable and keep improving so that the planet as well as the industry can continue to exist in the way we are used to.

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Sources

Chapmann, Lee: Transport and climate change: a review. In: Journal of Transport Geography 15 (2007). P.354-367.

Fahey, David W.; Forster, Piers M.; Lim, L. Ling; Newton, Peter J.; Owen, Bethan; Sausen, Robert; Wit, Ron C.N.: Aviation and global climate change in the 21st century. In: Atmospheric Environment 43 (2009). P.3520–3537.

Gössling, Stefan; Upham, Paul: Climate Change and Aviation: Issues, Challenges and Solutions. 2009.

Graph, showing atmospheric samples contained in ice cores throughout the years by NASA
<http://climate.nasa.gov/system/content_pages/main_images/203_co2-graph-021116.jpeg> (31.10.2016).

Lee, David S.: Aviation and Climate Change: The Science. In: Gössling, Stefan; Upham, Paul: Climate Change and Aviation: Issues, Challenges and Solutions. 2009. P.27-68.

Neiberger, Cordula: Air Freight: Trends and Issues. In: Gössling, Stefan; Upham, Paul: Climate Change and Aviation: Issues, Challenges and Solutions. 2009. P.221-244.

Noland, Robert B.; Toumi, Ralf; Williams, Victoria: Reducing the climate change impacts of aviation by restricting cruise altitudes. In: Transportation Research Part D 7 (2002). P.451-464.

PricewaterhouseCoopers: Aerospace and Defense. Sector climate change responses. 2010.
<https://www.pwc.co.uk/assets/pdf/climate-change-in-aerospace-defence.pdf> (30.10.2016).

The Atlantic: A century in the sky. <http://www.theatlantic.com/sponsored/boeing-2015/acenturyin-the-sky/652/> (30.10.2016).

YouTube: Boeing Advanced Technology Winglet: Better Wings for a Better Planet <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d0P4kpjiQho> (31.10.2016).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Boeing – Innovative aviation giant fighting climate change

  1. I agree that Boeing is an industry leader when it comes to reducing the environmental footprint of the airline industry. I found their commitment to research on biofuel particularly fascinating. You mention in your post the variety of steps they are taking to improve airplane design including blended winglets and retrofit performance packages. In my own research on Boeing, I was particularly interested in their work with NASA to try and reduce drag on their airplanes. Some of the improvements they’ve made include building small devices to blow jets of air on the vertical tail and even a non-stick coating to repel bugs from the wings! http://www.nasa.gov/aero/nasa-tests-green-aviation-technology-on-boeing-ecodemonstrator.html

    I disagree, however, on your point of electrical flying. From my research, it seemed like most experts had rejected electrical flying as a possibility which is why they were doubling down on biofuel. I’m curious if you found evidence to the contrary.

  2. Christin, great job identifying an industry that will certainly need to adapt to stay competitive moving forward! I agree with Liz that electric flying faces very tough odds to ever becoming economically viable, but I think they do have a number of other alternative routes. I think the 787 Dreamliner is a great example of how Boeing is using innovative materials technology to make their aircraft more efficient. The 787 is 20% more fuel efficient than its predecessor, the 767, which has huge implications for global air travel. While this is great progress, I strongly agree that they’ll need to improve fuel technology in order to thrive in the future.

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