The greening of airfreight

The greening of airfreight

With aircraft traffic predicted to double by 2037, how can air cargo companies stick to tight environmental targets? 

Read the full story and more in the Summer issue of TIACA Times.

The white criss-cross of vapour trails against the backdrop of a blue sky will become an ever more familiar sight in the decades to come. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the number of planes in the sky is going to double by 2037.   

And for reasons including globalisation, the proliferation of e-commerce and increasing express routes in Asia, a substantial part of that air traffic will be air cargo. Last year Boeing’s World Cargo Air Forecast predicted that air cargo traffic will grow at 4.2% annually. 

Increasing revenue is obviously good news for the air cargo industry, but what about the impact on the planet?  

The Carbon Footprint of Global Trade, a report produced by the International Transport Forum for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) in 2015 found that, although aviation emissions are lower than those of road transport, “they are not insignificant and are growing.” 

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) goes further, describing unregulated carbon pollution from aviation as “the fastest-growing source of the greenhouse gas emissions driving global climate change.”  

And in 2016, following recommendations from the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC), IATA advised airlines that carbon emissions should be capped at 2020 levels.

The emissions for international shipping and aviation were not covered by the United Nations Framework Climate Change Convention (UNFCCC) – Paris Agreement.  

Instead, they are left for the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), both United Nations agencies, to govern. 

For its part, the IMO will crack down on allowable sulphur emissions from the heavily oil dependent shipping industry from next year. When the IMO 2020 regulations come into play, increasing production costs will ultimately be passed onto consumers.

Efforts to reduce emissions from international aviation is the responsibility of ICAO. 

The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) was agreed by governments at the 39th ICAO Assembly in 2016.  

Airlines are required to monitor emissions but participation in CORSIA is voluntary, with 66 States (representing 86% of the aviation industry) committing to cap carbon emissions at 2020 levels. Notable absentees from CORSIA include Brazil, Russia, and India. 

From 2021, operators will self-report their estimated carbon emissions to national authorities, which will pass the figures onto ICAO. The authority then recommends the amount of offsetting the nation should undertake. 

So with more aircraft predicted to fill the sky in future years, how will it be possible to keep greenhouse gas emission to 2020 levels? 

There are three ways that this can be achieved, according to Sebastiaan Scholte, former Chairman of TIACA. The first is through more efficient aircraft and, in time, alternative energies. He is quick to warn about the feasibility of the latter though. 

“Whatever other sources of fuel appear, they will need to be economically viable. It should not be cost prohibitive. We all care about our planet, but customers are not willing to pay a cent extra for environmental solutions,” said Scholte. 

Although some airlines, notably United, are using biofuel in small quantities and others are putting money into development, at present there isn’t a plant that looks capable of providing for the scale of aircraft that are flying now, let alone in the future.  

ICAO predicts that biofuels will make up only 3% of the total aviation fuel being used by 2020. 

The WWF has also expressed concerns about the impact on food security or natural habitats when changing land use to grow the plants used for biofuels. 

Scholte also sees emissions reducing as older aircraft are replaced by more modern, fuel efficient aircraft. This has been an ever-improving story in aviation history, with aircraft becoming 80% more fuel efficient since the 1960s, according to ICAO.  

Engines that produce more thrust with less fuel, lighter materials and improved aerodynamics help to reduce emissions. Technology can also help, with smart data allowing more flexible routes set to replace preset flight plans.

However, ICAO found that reducing carbon emissions from more efficient aircraft won’t be enough to keep to the targeted 2020 cap, which is why the CORSIA agreement looked to offsetting as well. 

Scholte’s last recommendation is that load factors in passenger and cargo aircraft should increase, which he thinks could lessen emissions by around 9%.  

With IATA reporting that freight load factors in February averaged 45%, there is no doubt that aircraft have the available space. 

“These things will help to improve greenhouse gas emissions and we have to do it. The industry accounts for 2% of global emissions and it’s our obligation to reduce global warming,” said Scholte.  

Aside from the moral argument, investing in preventing further climate related disruption should save airlines money in the long term. As our climate continues to change, unpredictable weather patterns such as storms or extreme heat are already resulting in lost revenue for airlines when flights are cancelled as a result. 

Scientists have recently issued optimistic reports about cost effective biofuels that may one d

ay come into production but they are some way off. 

Whilst also confident about the positive environmental impact of more efficient aircraft and optimistic about the potential for biofuels, Neel Jones Shah, Global Head of Airfreight at Flexport and a TIACA Board member, suggests another way that emissions could be reduced. 

 “We need a complete overhaul of Air Traffic Management (ATM). Airlines are routed through corridors and flying thousands of hours where they don’t need to.  

“If we have free flight, you could save thousands of flight hours,” said Jones Shah.

Free flight would take away dependence on air traffic controllers, using data from satellites to map efficient routes away from other aircraft and disruptive weather conditions.  

Flexport, a freight forwarder using technology to offer a more contemporary service, offers customers the option of offsetting the carbon their journeys produce, or donating to, which is dedicated to delivering global aid. 

Despite Scholte’s warning that more expensive biofuels would put off customers, Jones thinks there might be a market for those wanting to ship in an environmentally friendly way. He thinks a bigger obstacle to more enlightened thinking might be politicians. 

“When you get administrations like the one we have in the United States (US) that doesn’t believe in global warming, sometimes it feels like government is working against you,” said Jones.

It’s useful to look at the success of TIACA trustee member Atlas Air to see how increased cargo capacity might be implemented in a sustainable way.  Since 2013, Atlas has doubled the number of cargo planes it operates to 101 and seen revenue grow by 62% in the same period.  

It has a full spectrum of clients that include express delivery providers, e-commerce companies, airlines, freight forwarders and even the military. Familiar names on their roster include FedEx, Amazon, and Emirates.  

The airline started reporting emissions to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) this year. 

Emissions in the USA will be looked at collectively. Greenhouse gases emitted from aviation companies during the period 2021-23 will be considered against 2020 levels. If the cap is exceeded, each individual carrier will be required to purchase carbon credits according to how polluting they have been.  

“We recognize that demand for air transportation services is likely to keep growing, which in turn may trigger a need for us and other airlines to secure and surrender carbon credits beginning in 2024,” said Debbie Coffey, Vice President and Chief Communication Officer (pictured left) 

Buying carbon credits is no longer just about planting trees. Sometimes it can mean investing in public transport, which reduces the amount of private vehicles on the road, or installing bio-gas digesters and cookstoves in low income communities where charcoal or wood would normally be burned for use when cooking. 

Carbon credits seem a good bet to keep to 2020 levels. In the 2016 report Greener Skies, the WWF forecasted they could help to achieve at least two thirds of the 2020 goal, with the potential for that figure to climb to 91%.

Famed naturalist David Attenborough, who has made repeated warnings about climate change at high profile events like the World Economic Forum at Davos and the White House at the invitation of Barack Obama, has said he fears “irreversible damage to the natural world and the collapse of our societies”. 

But he has also expressed optimism if concrete actions to limit global warming are taken in the next decade – the period within which CORSIA carbon offsetting will take place if emissions are excessive.

There might yet be a way that the cargo industry can grow in a sustainable way, but it is only through the monitoring of carbon emissions in future years that we will know if this is possible. There is certainly a lot at stake: the future of the globe that all those aeroplanes are currently flying around.