The environmental impact of the aviation industry is an issue capable of igniting fierce debates. In one corner, voices like that of outspoken British journalist, George Monbiot, make claims that “flying dwarfs any other environmental impact a single person can exert.” In the other corner, aviation organisations such as the US National Business Aviation Association (NBAA) – which has around 9,400 member companies – point to statistics showing that the industry emits a small percentage of transport emissions.
In a testimony delivered to the US senate in June 2012, Ed Bolen, president and CEO of the NBAA, drew the senate’s attention towards the fact that despite burning more than 60 billion gallons of fuel every year, the business aviation industry – which boasts a global fleet of around 17,000 business jets – currently represents 0.04 per cent of the world’s overall CO2 emissions. Bolen also showed that emissions from the aviation industry as a whole account for 2 per cent of carbon emissions (although some believe it is closer to 3 per cent).
“It does seem like a small number, but the issue is that the number is growing very fast,” says Suzanne Hunt, senior advisor at Carbon War Room, a non-profit organisation launched by Richard Branson in 2011. “When you take into account the growth in Asia, aviation emissions are on track to be up to 5 per cent or even 10 per cent by 2050.”
Most of this growth is from airlines. Regardless of the rate at which it is growing, the business aviation industry appears dedicated to cut down its carbon emissions – both for environmental and economic reasons – and is continually working towards making business aircraft as fuel efficient as possible.
In his testimony, Bolen confirmed the business aviation industry’s commitment to halving its CO2 emissions by 2050, in comparison to 2005. It has also promised carbon neutral growth by 2020 and an improvement in fuel efficiency of an average of 2 per cent per year.
As well as calling for a “sustained effort on the part of the entire business aviation community,” Bolen outlined a number of ways that will help the industry to meet these targets, citing improvements in technology, operational streamlining and the increasing availability of alternative fuel sources, such as biofuel, hydrogen and nuclear energy.
With biofuel still looking to reach certification, it is difficult to gauge the demand for a product which is not currently available to buy, but the early signs, according to the NBAA, are looking promising. “I can tell you that from speaking to our members, they are very interested in biofuels and reducing their environmental impact,” says Steve Brown, chief operating officer, for the NBAA.
However it is not clear if passengers on business jets feel the same way. Aviation companies such as UK charter broker Air Partner report a lack of interest in their green jet card.
Whether the business aviation is a bigger environmental concern than other industries is still unclear. What is clear is that the challenge to continually reduce emissions and promote the rise of cleaner, more efficient fuel sources will remain on the agenda for some time to come.