Asat Bidu stood in line at Vancouver International Airport (YVR) one afternoon in late March, waiting to check in to her flight to India. She makes the trip with her husband and son every couple of years, transferring through cities like Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Manila along the way.
Bidu and her family are just three of the millions of passengers who will travel to or from YVR this year. Despite a dip in traffic following the 2008 financial meltdown, Vancouver’s airport continues to experience steady growth, in both the number of flights that it offers and destinations that it serves.
Bidu’s husband, Biju, thinks that flying should be convenient, but that YVR and the aircraft industry need to maintain a balance between growth and environmental sustainability.
“We want to keep it clean,” he said, adding, “but we definitely want airplanes.”
Vancouver Airport Authority (VAA), which manages YVR, actually considers itself a trendsetter when it comes to environmental management. But although it’s identified emissions and air quality as priorities in its 2009-13 Environmental Management Plan, the emissions from airplanes are largely outside of its control. That’s because the design and operation of airplanes, the worst offenders when it comes to carbon emissions, generally fall outside of the influence of airports.
As Kathryn Harrison, a University of British Columbia political science professor who specializes in climate change policy and believes that YVR’s environmental programs are valuable, noted, “The biggest issue with airline travel is that it’s extremely fossil fuel-intensive to get people from one place to another in an airplane.
“And that’s the part we don’t talk about.”
In the meantime, worldwide demand for air travel is expected to triple by 2025, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration. In light of the increasing pressure on airports and airlines to expand services, scientists, the aviation community and governments continue to debate what should be done to reduce the aircraft industry’s environmental impact.
Expansion vs. the environment at YVR
YVR’s plans for expansion were given a boost by the British Columbia budget back in February. Finance Minister Kevin Falcon announced a tax exemption for jet fuel used on international flights, which include those originating from or travelling to the United States.
VAA’s director of aviation marketing, John Korenic, said that 22 airlines have agreed to expand their service as a result of the fuel cost savings, in addition to other incentives offered by the airport. Over the next five years, approximately 8,000 new international flights are expected to be added to the list of YVR arrivals and departures on an annual basis.
Korenic said the fuel tax exemption will help YVR “enhance [its] competitive position vs. other gateways,” primarily airports located along the U.S. West Coast and in Alberta.
But 8,000 new flights a year will produce approximately 6,074 tonnes of CO2 in and around Sea Island alone, which will likely mean an increase to the 78 per cent of CO2 emissions in the area already directly associated with airplanes.
Toni Frisby, YVR’s manager of environment, said that nationwide, a number of projects are helping to reduce airplane emissions.
“Modernization of the fleet goes a huge distance in terms of reducing the emissions,” she said, because as a result, aircraft “are so much more efficient.” Additionally, the “load factors” of airplanes have increased, which means airplanes are “flying fuller,” thus producing fewer emissions per passenger.
And at YVR, Frisby and the energy reduction team oversee a wide array of environmental programs that target the impact of the non-aircraft vehicles used to service airplanes as well as the airport building itself.
Projects include a solar-powered water heating system that provides 80 per cent of the water to the domestic and international terminals, and a building and lighting system designed so that daylight is utilized as the primary lighting source as much as possible.
“We’re always willing to stick our nose out and try stuff,” Frisby said.
Since the energy reduction team was introduced in 1999, the airport has saved 24 gigawatt-hours of power, or enough energy to power 2,400 homes for a year.
“Certainly we’re in the lead, in the front of the pack,” when comparing YVR’s environmental track record to other airports, Frisby said.
Global efforts to curb aviation’s environmental impact
In other areas of the world, it’s not airport authorities that are spearheading the effort to reduce the environmental impact of the airline industry, but governmental organizations.
The European Union has drawn the ire of many countries and airlines with the imposition of a carbon tax that specifically targets airplane emissions as of Jan. 1, 2012. India and China have even banned their airlines from paying the tax.
“I think it’s a bold move by the EU, because those emissions are big, and an argument can be made…that somebody needs to be responsible for those emissions,” said UBC’s Harrison, adding that part of the challenge is that emissions are “difficult to regulate” because they take place between countries and jurisdictions.
“I wouldn’t expect the Canadian government to go after those — they’re not even going after the much bigger sources within Canada.”
Beyond taxing emissions, another way to reduce the environmental impact of airplanes would be the adoption of biofuels.
But as YVR’s Frisby noted, currently no airplanes fly in or out of that airport using alternative fuel. The U.S.-based Commercial Aviation Alternative Fuels Initiative is hoping to change that.
Executive Director Richard Altman said he expects that by 2014-15, approximately 1 per cent of all commercial airplanes will be flown using biofuels, with a very good chance that number will grow to 5 per cent by 2020.
If 5 per cent is achieved, it will mean that commercial aviation can likely “meet the goal of carbon-neutral growth,” Altman said, “which means there will be no more carbon added to the atmosphere.”
Altman said two alternative fuels that are much better than traditional jet fuel in terms of their carbon footprint have been approved in the U.S. and are currently being used to fly on a trial basis. However, barriers to adoption, including low supply and the significantly higher cost of biofuels, continue to hinder growth of the industry.
Back at YVR, Frisby said there are even more technical issues to consider, among them managing which airlines would get to use alternative fuels that may be brought to Sea Island.
The low scientific understanding of the impact of aviation
According to University of Colorado professor Darin Toohey, beyond CO2 emissions, the impact of aviation on the environment is not well understood.
“We have a broad understanding of the kinds of things we can expect from the aircraft, but I wouldn’t say we have a consensus on the specifics at all,” he said.
The specifics include how emissions like water vapour, nitrogen oxides, soot and sulfur oxides affect the atmosphere, especially when they interact with the intensely cold environment planes fly in at high altitudes.
“It’s a very difficult measurement to make at -80 degrees centigrade,” Toohey said. “Pretty much everything related to aircraft (studies) needs work.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Aviation and Climate Change Research Initiative in the U.S. have both produced scientific papers on the impact of aviation. They attempt to summarize what we know about the subject, but they’re mostly guides for future research.
Given this low level of understanding, Toohey said, it’s very difficult to develop effective policies that target aircraft emissions.
Aviation vs. other emitters
Moreover, YVR’s Frisby thinks that the focus on aviation is somewhat misplaced. As she pointed out, the transportation industry is responsible for approximately 23 per cent of Canada’s CO2 emissions — of which just 5 per cent comes from aviation.
The source of most transportation-derived emissions falls under a category Frisby refers to as “the big elephant in that room”: public vehicles. “There are more opportunities to use alternatives for [those vehicles] than there are for aircraft.”
Prof. Harrison, however, doesn’t believe such stats should lessen the effort to reduce aviation’s environmental footprint.
“Every 30 per cent is made up of a whole bunch of 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 per cents,” she said.
“When we talk about the need to reduce our emissions by 50 per cent or 80 per cent or 90 per cent by 2050, no one’s off the hook.”