Airlines need to implement a wide range of initiatives to compensate for high growth in carbon emissions, recommends report

Airlines need to implement a wide range of initiatives to compensate for high growth in carbon emissions, recommends report | Susanne Becken

Thu 23 Jan 2020 – An analysis of leading international airlines has found initiatives to save emissions fall into 22 different categories of action, ranging from aircraft efficiency measures to improving flight operations, with the most notable being fleet renewal, retrofits and weight reductions. However, to compensate for the high growth in emissions, an airline would have to implement a large number of these measures year on year. Professor Susanne Becken of Griffith University, in collaboration with Amadeus, assessed the largest 58 airlines that make up 70% of the industry’s total available seat kilometres (ASKs). She found only 35 of them provided information on their emissions, which collectively showed an efficiency improvement of around 1 per cent in in 2018 compared to 2017. Becken highlights the need for improved public disclosure and reporting by the industry and calls for an acceleration of efforts to decarbonise the sector.


“Whilst more airlines now report on their carbon emissions and decarbonisation activities, the quality of reporting is still low,” Becken says in her report, ‘Airline initiatives to reduce climate impact’. “Even submissions filed with the CDP (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project) contain inconsistencies and errors. For other reports, formats and coverage differ widely and it is challenging to obtain a coherent picture of progress.”


In 2018, a total of 19 airlines provided information to the CDP, which reports on global disclosures on environmental impacts. Improvements in carbon performance of airlines are reported in the form of relative metrics and the CDP reports reveal that seven different metrics are used by airlines to measure their carbon intensity or efficiency, the most common being kg CO2 per revenue tonne kilometre (RTK) or per revenue passenger kilometre (RPK). Becken’s report opts for CO2 emissions per available seat kilometre (ASK) on the grounds that it is the most transparent variable and does not consider the effects of occupancy or cargo.


In total, 35 airlines provided information on emissions through CDP, their annual reports or their websites that enabled an assessment of changes in terms of absolute and relative emissions for 2017/18 and 2016/17. Most airlines increased their absolute emissions but at the same time most were able to demonstrate efficiency improvements. Whilst the 1.04% collective efficiency gain is a positive outcome, says the report, it falls short of industry targets and it is also insufficient to compensate against growth.


Only 16 airlines were found to have specified emissions targets that differed, and were usually more ambitious, from the IATA industry targets, with 29 airlines mentioning the ICAO CORSIA carbon-neutral growth scheme.


The report notes that eight airlines are accelerating carbon reduction outcomes by using an internal price on carbon. “Building a carbon price into internal financial systems helps drive investment decisions towards lower carbon outcomes. Airlines that already ‘internalise’ carbon will be better prepared for policy instruments such as carbon taxes,” suggests Becken.


Examining carbon reduction initiatives, the most frequently reported measures are to reduce weight of the aircraft, along with fleet renewal and retrofitting winglets or sharklets. Airlines such as Lufthansa and Singapore Airlines have achieved significant emission reductions through modifying the Trent engines on their older Airbus aircraft. Optimal fuel load management by Asiana Airlines enabled CO2 reductions equivalent to 0.36% of annual emissions.


While replacing older aircraft with new more fuel-efficient aircraft constitutes an environmental improvement, the greater benefit is often higher profits by having significantly increased payload and range. “This in turn could stimulate further expansion by the airline company, leading to more emissions,” points out the report.


Further emission reduction initiatives include route and airspace optimisation, descent management and tools to guide pilot decision-making.


A key finding of the report is that there are many ways of saving carbon but most of them result in relatively small reductions – in the order of 0.1 or at best 0.3% of annual fuel use – compared with overall emissions. “However, taken together these small steps may have some overall impact,” it says.


Nineteen airlines reported on investing in biofuels through some sort of partnership, with four airlines mentioning electric aircraft in their carbon reduction strategies. Offering carbon offsetting to customers is increasingly popular among airlines, although reporting on implementation is still rudimentary. Of the 58 airlines assessed, 28 made reference to carbon offsetting in some form, nine provided information on uptake by customers and 13 attempted to quantify the impact of their offsetting activities. Tangible information on uptake and volume of credits was found to be limited and where available, indicated very low numbers.


“The purchase of offsets does not decarbonise aviation and fails to deliver real reductions,” says the report. “However, whilst carbon offsetting might not provide a long-term and definite solution, it is an important transition mechanism that helps travellers and businesses contribute to positive climate action for those emissions that cannot be avoided, at least in the short term and when high quality schemes are chosen.


“Airlines still have to improve the delivery of their carbon offsetting programmes to secure customer uptake and measurable impact. At this point, offsetting is in the order of a few per cent at best.


“Some airlines have begun to offer their passengers an opportunity to invest into either alternative fuels or offsets. This may help increase awareness amongst travellers and give people the feeling that they are doing something. It also helps raise funds for projects that at this present point can deliver carbon reductions at a cheaper cost than aviation.”


The report highlights the important role governments can play in decarbonising the sector, such as accelerating investment in research and development into new technologies and providing positive signals to help airlines write off old and inefficient aircraft relatively sooner.


“More creative thinking will be required to lead airlines out of the conundrum of growing emissions and increasing pressure to reduce them,” it concludes.




Airlines reporting on initiatives (source: Becken report):




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