For many years, it was assumed that the primary emphasis on decreasing greenhouse gas emissions should concentrate on automobiles. After all, as a recent “Huffington Post” article decried, the world now has over a billion cars and their greenhouse gas emissions to deal with.
In an April 2010 article, “Impact of Aviation on Climate: Research Priorities,” published in the “American Meteorological Society,” authors Guy P. Brasseur and Mohan Gupta cite the enormous amount of air traffic that takes place annually. According to Brasseur and Gupta, over “23,000 aircraft operated by more than 2,000 airlines carry more than 2.2 billion passengers annually” via a network of 3,750 airports. Most environmental scientists estimate that between 2 and 3 percent of global emissions are from air travel.
Apples & Oranges
These figures have led many to the assumption that a single airplane flight’s emissions would be dwarfed compared to the number of car trips required to carry those passengers. For instance, many would agree that an airplane carrying 200 passengers from Chicago to L.A. would have a much smaller carbon footprint than if 200 people drove cars on the same journey. But this assumption is false for a couple of reasons—despite the similarity of the type of greenhouse gases emitted by both modes of transportation.
The first and most important issue is where the emissions take place. According to the International Civil Aviation Organization’s webpage devoted to Aircraft Engine Emissions:
- Airplanes give off most of their emissions in the upper troposphere and lower stratosphere;
- Their gases “trigger the formation of condensation trails and may increase cirrus cloudiness…which contribute to climate change;”
- An increase in the number of flights, which is expected to increase aviation emissions 3 to 4 percent per year, and;
- These carbon dioxide emissions are too far away to be “processed” by land plant life into oxygen.
The second issue involves comparing the maximum fuel efficiencies available using these two types of transportation as performed by the True Cost blog. Calculating average person-miles per gallon, or PMPG, takes into account the capacity of a given mode of travel. Calculating the maximum PMPG assumes the vehicle is full. The maximum PMPG of walking, for instance, is 700. The value for cars is 113 PMPG, while that of an airplane is 53.6 PMPG.
Thus, the “common sense” response to our 200 airplane passengers versus 200 individual automobile trips indicates the more difficult challenge faced by the aviation industry: achieving efficiency and environmental care.
Directives, Mandates and Initiatives
Similar comparisons and research findings have not gone unnoticed by influential governmental and industry organizations:
- According to its website, the primary goals of the Aviation Management Directorate (AMD) within the National Business Center (NBC) are “… to raise the safety standards, increase the efficiency, and promote the economical operation of aircraft activities in the Department of the Interior.”
- In his July 4, 2010 “Green Column,” columnist James Kanter described aviation companies’ legal opposition to being forced into the European Union’s Emissions Trading System for Airplanes—similar to the Kyoto Protocol.
- An even earlier article quoted then-Airbus executive vice president Tom Williams speaking for the airlines who purchase his company’s planes. “Our customers are under hellish pressures to come up with improvements,” he stated.
- And in the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Environment and Energy Research & Development rolled out its new research program, the Aviation Climate Change Research Initiative (ACCRI). As of March 16, 2011, it held a full page of white paper titles, ACCRI reports and Bulletin of American Meteorological Society peer-reviewed papers.
The Wild Green Yonder of Aviation Employment
Careers in the field of aviation will continue to increase. Some positions—luggage handlers, pilots, and ticket agents—will remain the same with an increasing need for new employees to staff more flights. Green aviation careers, designed to help the industry in its challenge to increase energy efficiency while decreasing environmental impact, will mostly be add-ons in that they won’t bump existing employees out of a job. Add-on green aviation management jobs will include:
- Environmental Careers
From laboratory assistants to research scientists, people will be needed to document and study the current—and future—effects of aviation upon the environment, including noise pollution, wildlife experts, air quality specialists and waste water specialists from airport tarmac run-off.
- System Engineers Careers & IT
Improved air traffic control systems can decrease airline fuel consumption and emissions by decreasing wait times to take off and land.
- Airplane Design & Materials, Aircraft Engineers, Airplane Maintenance
Every pound removed from an airplane decreases fuel use by 0.75%. New airplane construction and modification of existing aircraft concentrates on using newer, lighter materials such as carbon fiber composites and titanium. One airline changed to a new carbon-fiber braking system and eliminated 800 pounds from each plane. Another airline is exploring the use of a new turbo-fan in its engines to increase fuel efficiency.
- Sound Engineers & Technicians
One airline is experimenting with a new type of foam to decrease engine noise upon take-offs.
- Chemists, Biologists & Fuel Engineers
All aviation companies dream of finding a new, inexpensive, nonpolluting fuel. One company is exploring using energy from solar cells on the plane’s wings for power. A widespread interest exists in possible new biofuels, such as algae that reproduce quickly to create a renewable energy source.
And Thank You For Flying…
Breaking the aviation industry’s reliance on carbon-based fuel will cause more clamor and change than when Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. But in the meantime, any and every part of an airplane’s design is open to change, which could lead to a greater number and wider variety of job opportunities in the aviation field.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock