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Thu, Jun 07, 2007 - Page 10 News List

Airline industry seeks greener image

STRATOSPHERIC AIM While industry leaders dreamed of attaining zero emissions within 50 years, skeptics said that achieving this goal was easier said than done


Leaders of the world's airline industry said at their annual meeting that airlines would strive to be more "green" and aim for zero carbon-dioxide emissions by 2050, but skeptics question whether the goal is realistic.

"I don't have all the answers, but I'm sure research can find the way to achieve zero percent in 50 years. This is realistic," International Air Transport Association (IATA) Giovanni Bisignani Director Feneral said at the group's annual conference in Vancouver this week.

Bisignani identified reducing emissions as the industry's new priority for the sector, which has revived with expected earnings of US$5 billion this year after several years of losses.

"We have to transform this vision into reality, working with the different actors of this industry," he said at the conference. "We need a global scheme, a common approach to technologies."

But there was skepticism in the corridors of the conference hall over the practicality of reaching the zero emissions target given the relentless growth in air travel.

"With the prospects of an increasing air traffic, between aging populations of OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries, emerging markets and continuing globalization of business activity, this can make us sweat," said Michael Levine, a researcher at New York University.

Despite efforts to reduce fuel consumption by 25 percent by 2020 using existing technologies, the carbon footprint of the civil aviation industry is growing as a portion of global emissions.

"There is no sense in aiming for zero emissions," said Levine, a former airline executive.

"Technologically, I don't believe in zero emissions. But I believe we have to be responsible for our emissions and declare to the public we're going to make the best efforts we can," he said.

IATA is counting on scientific advances, through the efforts of air carriers and with the public sector -- including governments, regulators and the UN -- imposing international standards and creating a carbon emissions trading market.

"To reach zero emissions for carbon dioxide, you need fuel without carbon, that is to say a hydrogen engine," said Trung Ngo, head of communications at the Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier.

A hydrogen jet engine, which requires enormous reserves, was already tested in the 1980s, he said.

"It is viable technically, but the problem that remains unresolved to this day is storage. It requires a tremendous compression of hydrogen," Ngo said.

Bio-fuels present an even more daunting challenge.

"It would require some fields as large as Florida to produce 10 percent of the bio fuels needed by the US airlines," said Philippe Rochat, head of the environmental division at IATA.

At the moment, there are only "intermediate solutions" available to the aviation industry, Ngo said.

"The most successful technology is the `geared fan' engine," Ngo said. "It promises to be 30 [percent] to 40 percent more effective than existing engines" but it has yet to be introduced on the market.

IATA said that "today's modern aircraft consume an average 3.5 liters per 100 passenger kilometers. This is similar to a small compact car but with six times the speed."

On the manufacturing front, the use of composite materials and other design changes have produced greater fuel efficiency in the next generation of aircraft, such as the Boeing 787 and the Airbus 350 and 380.

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