On Saturday afternoon, I got on a plane to fly to Vancouver from Toronto- a five-hour flight that covers about 3500 kilometres. I generally get on a plane at least once a year, and this time, having just read the Global Warming Survival Handbook, I was feeling a little bit guilty. According to the Handbook, a six-hour flight aboard a commercial jet makes each passenger responsible for one ton of CO2 emissions. Not only that, but high-flying planes also release nitrous oxide and water vapour directly into the atmosphere- particles which contribute to the greenhouse effect and also help form smog.
However, there is good news. The European Union is working on incorporating the aviation industry (with all industries) into a strict set of emissions controls that will allow the EU to meet Kyoto standards. A CO2 emissions cap is set at a level deliberately lower than that which will allow the industry to fulfill their energy needs, forcing them to invest in green energy sources or, if all else fails, they can buy offsets from other companies which don’t need them.
In Amsterdam at the Aerospace Research Centre, even more work is being done. Making airplane travel more efficient and less environmentally damaging is a priority in their research, these days, and there are a few ways they have already found to make airplanes cleaner.
One way is to improve air traffic management. We need to create less fragmented airspace and have planes take fewer detours, to save on fuel. Another fuel saver is to build more efficient engines, and to make sure that the pilot doesn’t start the engine until it is guaranteed that the aircraft can get to the runway and take off right away.
Another technique is to improve the efficiency of aircraft in flight. Intelligent wings will have sensors on them to detect air turbulence and wind, and will adjust themselves accordingly, much like birds’ wings, to reduce resistance while in flight. Aerodynamics can be improved as well, including using lighter and lighter materials to construct thte planes.
Each of these ideas will only make a small difference, but combined, one researcher thinks that overall aircraft efficiency could be improved by ten or even twenty percent. The goal set by the EU is to have airplanes running at a 30% better efficiency by the year 2020.