Mayday: Mother Earth Code 7700

28 December 2014: AirAsia QZ8501 radios for permission to divert around bad weather. 162 passengers remain missing, feared dead.

24 July 2014: Air Algerie AH5017 disappears over Mali amid poor weather. 116 passengers believed dead.

23 July 2014: 48 dead. Taiwanese ATR-72 crashes into stormy seas.

The list goes on.1

 

The Aerospace & Aviation Industry

While many airlines operate at an astonishing nine sigma safety level, the threats of mother nature remain outside their control. Aviation currently accounts for only 2% of global carbon emissions, but it is expected to be the fastest-growing transport mode over the next three decades.2 Because jetliners must sustain flight for prolonged periods of time, are incredibly weight sensitive, and fly in low-temperature conditions, jet fuels must contain high energy density (i.e. energy content per unit volume or mass) and observe low freezing points. Current technologies are unable to achieve these specifications through renewable energy sources.3 Nevertheless, Boeing, a leading global aerospace company, has achieved some success in reducing its carbon footprint.

 

Challenges & Opportunities for Boeing

As climate change becomes top of mind for more people around the world, companies will look to make their business practices more sustainable. Today, airlines enjoy major cost savings as oil prices remain suppressed. However, in the decades to come, they will ultimately feel pressure to reduce their reliance on fossil fuel derivatives.2 Due to the long lead times in R&D, aircraft manufacturers need to apply greater focus on this issue now to be prepared for future demand. Boeing is well-positioned to lead this charge. It acknowledges that changing weather patterns and extreme weather can dramatically affect aviation safety. It further recognizes the environmental impact of climate change not only on its home state of Washington, which is known for its vibrant and diverse ecosystems, but also around the world.4

 

Green Initiatives

In assessing Boeing’s performance with respect to addressing climate change, I investigated their energy efficiency, decarbonization, & land management initiatives.

Energy Efficiency

In 2011, Boeing delivered its first 787 Dreamliner, a first-of-its-kind carbon fiber aircraft. Because carbon fiber is significantly lighter than aluminum, which comprises 80% of traditional aircraft,5 the 787 realizes a whopping 20% increase in fuel efficiency compared to similarly sized planes.6

Decarbonization

Boeing is investing in renewable fuel cell technologies which will initially be used to power internal systems, like lighting and multimedia. Later, fuel cells could be used to power auxiliary functions as well, such as wing flaps.4 Significant research is still required before fuel cells have the energy density and output capacity to power entire planes.7 Boeing is also tinkering with moon-shot projects like alumina-silicate composites capable of sequestering carbon dioxide. Applications of this technology wouldn’t directly reduce carbon emissions for planes, but could reduce net carbon emission for the company.

Land Management

Aggregate hazardous waste, GHG emissions, landfill waste, & water intake for Boeing production facilities have all fallen since 2012 (see Figure 1). The US EPA awarded Boeing the 2016 Energy Star Partner of the Year Award for their sustained excellence in environmental initiatives.

image

Figure 1. 2015 Environmental Performance Compared to 2012 Baseline4

 

Moving Forward

I believe Boeing can go further in showing its commitment to sustainability and reducing its carbon footprint.

  • Organizational: Boeing can employ a Chief Sustainability Officer to enhance credibility and keep environmental initiatives top of mind.
  • Logistical: Boeing is the sole client of many companies that produce custom aircraft components. Boeing has a social responsibility to govern the sustainability of its supply chain.
  • Technological: Boeing can do more in the renewables space by researching, or supporting research for, green substitutes for jet fuel. For example, companies like Amyris Biotechnologies are looking to engineer biological pathways that result in renewable, energy dense hydrocarbons.3
  • Geopolitical: Boeing can leverage its industry partners throughout the world to promote sustainable practices. It can offer discounts or subsidies to compliant foreign countries or airlines as an incentive.
  • Geoengineering: Boeing can investigate ways to retrofit their planes to eject sulfates into the atmosphere. Preliminary evidence suggests sulfates could reduce incident solar radiation by 1%.8

 

Conclusion

The sustainability of our world is the responsibility of everyone on Earth. Due to the long lead time of R&D, it is imperative that we think about these issues while they can still be stopped. The aviation industry can only be a small part of the solution. Ultimately, the entire world will need to reconsider the way it consumes energy.

 

733 words

 

1  “Air disasters timeline,” BBC, 1 November 2015; < http://www.bbc.com/news/world-10785301> accessed 4 November 2016.

2  “Transport, Energy and CO2,” International Energy Agency, 2009; <https://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/transport2009.pdf> accessed 4 November 2016.

3  Singer, Emily; “Greener Jet Fuel,” MIT Technology Review, 11 June 2007; <https://www.technologyreview.com/s/408034/greener-jet-fuel/> accessed 3 November 2016.

4  “Build Something Cleaner: 2016 Environment Report,” The Boeing Company, 2016. <http://www.boeing.com/resources/boeingdotcom/principles/environment/pdf/2016_environment_report.pdf#page=28> accessed 3 November 2016.

5  “History of Aluminum in the Aerospace Industry,” Metal Supermarkets, 8 February 2016; <https://www.metalsupermarkets.com/history-of-aluminum-in-the-aerospace-industry/> accessed 3 November 2016.

6  Ostrower, Jon; “Boeing’s Unique Accounting Method Helps Improve Profit Picture,” The Wall Street Journal, 4 October 2016; accessed 3 November 2016.

7  Klesius, Michael; “How Things Work: Flying Fuel Cells,” Smithsonian: Air & Space, February 2009; <http://www.airspacemag.com/flight-today/how-things-work-flying-fuel-cells-47181830/?no-ist> accessed 3 November 2016.

8  Henderson, Rebecca M.; “Climate Change in 2016: Implications for Business,” Harvard Business School, 14 October 2016; accessed 3 November 2016.

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14 thoughts on “Mayday: Mother Earth Code 7700

  1. Great post. There are a number of interesting interactions between climate change and air travel. Several climate studies have pointed out that increasing surface temperatures will both strengthen jet streams and increase atmospheric turbulence. One recent study of 34 different climate models hypothesized that if our current air travel routes remain unaltered average flight time could increase by as much as one minute per flight on average, resulting in commercial jets spending an extra 300,000 hours in the air annually and producing an extra 10 trillion kgs of CO2 per year. (1) Simultaneously, greater incidence of in-flight turbulence would force passenger jets to take longer routes or fly at less efficient altitudes, further lengthening flights and increasing emissions. (2)

    1. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/15/climate-change-costing-airlines-millions-of-dollars-in-extra-fuel-and-flying-time
    2. http://climatenewsnetwork.net/flight-paths-are-set-to-get-bumpier/

  2. Very interesting piece. I couldn’t help but think about aircraft manufacturer’s real incentivisation and motivation for taking climate change seriously – given the huge costs and technological difficulties involved in addressing the issue. Society tends to give air travel a real tough time when it comes to climate change, so I think a large part of their motivation is for PR purposes, but the question is; if in 5, 10, 15, 20 years time they still haven’t developed a more carbon friendly solution, will demand for air travel (and their revenues) decline? Given how critical and common air travel has become, I find this hard to believe – so should manufacturers just accept their product is going to produce a lot of greenhouse gas at high altitude and focus on offsetting strategies (planting forests etc.) rather than prevention ones?

  3. Very interesting! This post reminds me of some initiatives that Boeing together with some Brazilian airlines and Embraer (also an airplane manufacturer) are implementing to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. First, Brazilian airline GOL began the first commercial route with farnesane, a recently approved renewable jet fuel. GOL has committed to fly its Boeing 737 fleet with a 10 percent blend of the renewable fuel on its U.S. to Brazil routes [1]. Farnesane meets the rigorous performance requirements set by the aviation industry and can reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by up to 80% compared to traditional petroleum fuels. Second, Boeing and Embraer opened a joint sustainable aviation biofuel research center in Brazil [2], where the sugarcane ethanol accounts for almost 50% of the total fuel usage in the automobile industry but still less than 1% in the aviation fuel usage.

    [1] http://investors.amyris.com/releasedetail.cfm?releaseid=858807
    [2] http://www.embraer.com/en-us/imprensaeventos/press-releases/noticias/pages/boeing-e-embraer-inauguram-centro-de-pesquisa-em-biocombustiveis-no-brasil.aspx

  4. Very interesting! Given NC’s post above about how just one minute extra of flying time per flight can have such a large effect, I wonder if it’s possible for Boeing to focus on increasing the speed of its airplanes. Alternatively, they could focus on promoting passengers to travel lighter. Perhaps they can incentivize passengers to travel light by rewarding them with points for only bringing one carry on or for having a lighter checked bag. This would decrease the weight of the plane and the fuel required for the trip therefore reducing emissions.

  5. Interesting connection you’ve made here between the aviation industry and climate change. “Compared to other modes of transport, such as driving or taking the train, travelling by air has a greater climate impact per passenger kilometer and produces the most emissions” [1]. Beyond the effects mentioned, other subtle ways that climate change will affect the aviation industry includes the effect on airports and their workers. Heat or flooding can impact those airports that are vulnerable to floods or heat. Also, workers at these airports will be further subjected to the harsh working conditions associated with the already high temperatures on the tarmac.

    [1] http://www.davidsuzuki.org/issues/climate-change/science/climate-change-basics/air-travel-and-climate-change/

  6. Great post on aviation. When you mentioned the land management initiatives that Boeing has put into place it made me think of other ways they could add value in the advent of climate change. Given the high cost of managing airports, I wonder if Boeing could partner with airports to reduce the number of runways and focus on developing hub airports as we discussed in the United Airlines case. It is not surprising that airport runways are being damaged by global warming, further jeopardizing the safety and efficiency of flights [1]. Boeing needs to run point on making sure their planes are being operated in safe conditions, and they can do this by mandating where their plans are taking off from and landing at.

    https://www.greenbiz.com/article/4-ways-climate-change-could-ground-airline-industry

  7. thanks for the insights. I think your point is very well taken with regards to how long the R&D cycle is and how this significantly amplifies the need for the industry to actively address the issue of climate change. Is there an over arching body that regulates airlines that could impose a target similar to what was done for the auto industry in Europe? Given the growth and importance of the airline industry I wonder why this has not happened

  8. Boeing’s efforts to reducing the industry’s impact on climate change are admirable to say the least. I do wonder though if there are any risks associated with overly investing in R&D projects that may not deliver significant monetary returns to its shareholders. I can certainly see great value in projects such as the carbon fiber aircraft where there is a 20% increase in fuel efficiency to reduce both carbon footprint and costs.
    But if I was a shareholder I would be somewhat weary of the so-called “moon-shot projects” that may not generate any significant returns for the company, even if it does someday materialize. While certainly strong for the company’s PR, is there a point where the (potential) benefits to the environment no longer outweigh the company’s duties to its shareholders?

  9. The airlines space is a really interesting industry! Aviation is very relevant to climate change given both the consumption of fuel and carbon emissions. However, is Boeing the best positioned to lead the charge. Given the issues they faced immediately after the launch of the Dreamliner (battery problems) and lost/crashed flights, the company is under a lot of of pressure. How should they prioritize these business issues / PR issues with their focus on climate change?

  10. You bring up some really good points regarding Boeing’s unique positioning to influence the practices of some of the many suppliers that exist who have Boeing as their sole customer. That’s a lot of bargaining power they hold there. However, it seems like many of the efforts to implement emissions-reducing processes at the supplier level would result in increased costs for Boeing, which in turn would lead to higher costs for the airlines that purchase their planes, and in turn, higher airfares for everyone. How would Boeing be able to “sell” these higher costs to their customers?

  11. Very interesting post! Dreamliner fuel reduction is an important step for industry footprint reduction, however, I would be curious to know more about Boeing developments in electrical planes space(or at least information about trials to use solar panels on planes to reduce the fuel-dependancy). If we are able to make hybrid cars, why wound we not try to build hybrid planes. Interestingly, Airbus is already developing them (http://money.cnn.com/2016/04/07/news/companies/hybrid-electric-plane-airbus-siemens/).
    As of the future, I am also very curious how will the advanced conferencing technology, such as Microsoft’s Mixed Reality HoloLens, will affect business driven need to travel. Interesting times ahead!

  12. Great post, Curtis. This is a classic example of incentive alignment between environmental interests and polluting industries. While oil prices are at an all time low, many analysts predict that the supply glut will wind down at the end of 2017 [1]. Regardless, because of the long-term development cycles, Boeing seems well poised to take advantage of increased oil prices given their innovations in fuel efficiency and lightweight material engineering. Their strategy also aligns with airline strategy – offering longer and more flexible routes, which the 787 is already taking advantage of.

    [1] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-09-13/iea-changes-view-on-oil-glut-sees-oversupply-persisting-in-2017

  13. Really interesting post! Given that Boeing is an industry that by nature pollutes the environment, they are making impressive strides to address the problem. With oil prices being so low, I agree that now is the time to invest in R&D to discover solutions that benefit both climate change, as well as Boeing’s future cash flows. I really like your point on geopolitics as well. As Boeing is an industry leader, it can use its market influence to enact change among clients and partners. Your suggestion of monetary incentives to bring this to fruition shows a sharp understanding of the reality of how to get this done. I agree that without such incentives, Boeing will not be as successful in making a difference.

  14. Intriguing post, Curtis. Hat-tip for style as well!

    I agree with your conclusions, particularly that Boeing has a duty to be an innovator and leader in the industry, given its size, importance and complex web of suppliers. A large question that remains in my mind is the degree to which the pace of innovation can (and should) be prompted by government through mandated milestones rather than left to individual manufacturers. This is naturally further complicated by the strong international players in the field. I recall that earlier this year, the UN’s aviation agency laid down new rules for the industry (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/09/business/energy-environment/un-agency-proposes-limits-on-airlines-carbon-emissions.html?_r=0). The catch? They only need to be complied with in 2028.

    I would be interested in your thoughts on this conundrum. Should government be chiding companies along, particularly given the length of the R+D cycle?

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