Posted by: David Hone

Where to Now For Aviation?

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Last week’s first commercial flight of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner potentially marks the beginning of a new era for the aviation industry. Its composite construction and 20% better fuel efficiency (than the 767) continues a long term trend of improvement by Boeing. But the numbers behind this essential global industry are daunting, albeit with impressive strides forward such as the 787.

Revenue Passenger Kilometres (RPK) have more than doubled since 1990 and the Boeing Current Market Outlook for the period 2011 to 2030 has RPK growth rates surging ahead in many parts of the world at well over 5% p.a. such that by 2030 RPK in the Asia Pacific area alone is nearly 4 trillion. Globally, 2030 traffic is forecast to be about triple that of today.

Total CO2 emissions (Source: IEA) have risen as well, but since 1990 the growth has been “only” 50%, compared with the more than doubling of activity. This points to the impressive jumps in fuel efficiency, with the Dreamliner delivering yet again.

The chart above gives an indication of the improvements achieved by plane type. I wasn’t able to locate actual efficiency figures, so the chart has been derived from the fuel capacity, passenger carrying capacity and range of various aircraft plotted against the year of release for the aircraft in question. Clearly the trend has been strongly down, starting with the Boeing 707 in the 1950s. But how much further can this impressive trend extend? Airlines are also pressing hard to increase efficiency of their legacy fleets by taking steps such as reducing weight, incentivizing passengers to do the same with their baggage, optimizing schedules and pushing air traffic control and airports to improve landing, takeoff and taxiing procedures.

But if air traffic is to triple in just 20 years, efficiency will have to jump by even more than it has to date to deliver any sort of sustainable service. Increasing Kerosene (Jet A1) demand will not only put pressure on crude oil demand, but will also pressure the yield of kerosene from the barrel. This will require refiners to become more inventive in the processing of crude oil and could well point to even higher energy demand by refineries to make more transport fuel from the barrels of crude available. It may also point to an even faster turnover of the fleet as airlines scramble to upgrade to the next generation of fuel efficient aircraft – planes such as the 787 Dreamliner, A380 and upcoming A350 series from Airbus.

Many airlines are now starting to experiment with biofuels and new production processes such as Fischer-Tropsch based Gas-to-Liquids with its high kerosene yields will add to the aviation fuel pool. But revolutionary step change airframes that might make up a future Boeing 800 or Airbus 400 series are unlikely to impact this 20 year picture, they just won’t be here in time or in sufficient numbers to make a difference (the Dreamliner was first mooted in the late 1990s). The2030 die is now largely cast with what we have and know about.

The challenge of an absolute reduction in CO2 emissions from aviation is also an unlikely prospect given the above figures. Yet by 2030 global emissions need to have peaked and be showing real falls. Although aviation may well continue to show impressive efficiency improvements and could have introduced biofuels into the mix by 2030, sheer demand will probably mean a rise in emissions. This then puts more pressure on other sectors to reduce, such as power generation and road transport.

Authored by:

David Hone

David Hone serves as the Chief Climate Change Advisor for Royal Dutch Shell. He combines his work with his responsibilities as a board member and Chairman of the International Emissions Trading Association (IETA). Additionally, he works closely with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development and has been a lead contributor to many of its recent energy and climate change ...

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November 5, 2011

Willem Post says:


Nice article about aviation CO2 emissions. What makes it worse is that they are emitted at 40,000 ft where they do most harm. Your article reinforces that global warming, given current lifestyles, is a given.

Latest data: the US per capita CO2 is about 3 times China's, but China's per capita GDP is much less than of the US.

Energy use and CO2 emissions are more meaningful if they are tied to GDP, not to population size; Btu/yr/$ of GDP and CO2 emissions/yr/$ of GDP.

China will have 2 times the CO2 emissions of the US in a few years.

The world's projected fossil fuel consumption is here 

An article in the New York Times describes the reduced ability of the world's forests to absorb CO2. The forest area is getting smaller and what is left over is getting weaker, while the CO2 addition to the atmosphere has been, and will be, increasing for decades no matter what humans can reasonably be expected to do regarding renewables.

Global warming is a given. It is best to PREPARE for the inevitable additional global warming by requiring people to move away from flood-prone areas, requiring the building of new energy efficient, passive solar houses  and other buildings that stay cool in summer and warm in winter, and requiring the use of new cars that get 50 MPG or better.

If we do not do this, the (owning + O&M) costs of our society will become so excessive (rising resource prices, increased damage from weather events) that our goods and services will become less competitive and more and more people will not be able to afford living in such a society.

If we do not do this the world will be rationing resources to its growing population (10 billion by 2050?) sooner than later. 


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November 3, 2011

Rusty Speidel says:

This is where offsets from other energy consumption sources can help. If we can move a lot of ground consumption into the renewable generation areas--cars, heating, cooling, etc.--then the impacts of this growth can be mitigated, yes?

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November 4, 2011

A guest says:


That depends on what you believe must be done to halt the rise of global temperature. If you believe, as James Hansen does, that GHG emissions must cease to halt the rise, the offsets would provide only short term mitigation. If you believe, as Bill McKibbon of does, that GHG emissions must cease and that atmospheric CO2 concentrations must be reduced to 350 ppm, then offsets would again also provide only short term mitigation. However, if you believe that a 50% reduction in global annual emissions would be adequate to halt the rise of global temperature, then the mitigation would be effective.

"You've got to be careful, if you don't know where you're going, because you might end up someplace else.", Yogi Berra

"If you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there.", Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland

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