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
In assessing Boeing’s performance with respect to addressing climate change, I investigated their energy efficiency, decarbonization, & land management initiatives.
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
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.
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.
Figure 1. 2015 Environmental Performance Compared to 2012 Baseline4
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
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.
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.