In July 2021 Boeing published its first sustainability report, outlining not just its strategy for reducing aviation net carbon emissions to zero by 2050 but also demonstrating how the company is evolving to take account of society’s changing needs for more inclusivity and diversity. Chris Raymond, Chief Sustainability Officer at Boeing, reports.
“Sustainability” – it is a word that is often used, with several meanings and even more interpretations.
For many organisations, environmental responsibility is not a stand-alone performance measure, it is part of a range of activities which, holistically, are integrated into new ways of thinking about corporate responsibility.
“We view sustainability as an integral part of the full environmental, social and governance picture. For us, this means addressing an umbrella of social and environmental activities – from how we treat our workforce to improving diversity; from how we govern the company to how our board of directors interacts with the environmental challenge. Our CEO Dave Calhoun is passionate about this topic and wanted us to be clear about what form sustainable aerospace is going to take. We’ve spent some time talking about this topic inside the company and we decided we wanted to show the work we are doing in four key areas: people, products, services & technologies and operations – our own operations and the work we do in our communities.”
“This report has been written to demonstrate the progress we have made but also to be sober about the work that we have to do. We wanted to demonstrate a blend of technological progress and the social dimension of aerospace - the 87 million jobs that are generated and the four percent of global domestic product (GDP) that’s associated with the industry. The global Green growth agenda, especially as we recover from the pandemic, is an integral part of this.”
In Europe, damaging weather events over the summer, the launch of the European Union’s Green Deal and the publication in August of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Report on global warming have all propelled environmental concerns to the top of government agendas. As it seeks to build a lasting recovery, the continent’s aviation sector has come under increasing pressure to change the way it flies – using current technologies more efficiently and, in parallel, developing new, cleaner propulsion systems.
Boeing has committed to have all its airliners certified to fly on 100% sustainable aviation fuels by 2030. The company began working with airlines, engine manufacturers and others to conduct biofuel test flights in 2008 and gained approval for their commercial use in 2011. In 2018 the company carried out the world’s first commercial airplane flight using 100% sustainable fuels as part of its ecoDemonstrator programme. In August 2021 Boeing launched the eighth version of this programme with Alaska Airlines, helping the company mature technologies and procedures that can improve efficiency and safety or reduce noise.
While the transition to new energies, such as hydrogen, electric or sustainable aviation fuels, is an important part of the ecoDemonstrator programme, Boeing is also targeting major advances in structures and manufacturing techniques, using new digital design and management systems which have shown potential 75% improvements in quality along with a significant reduction in assembly times.
While engine manufacturers do not need convincing about the importance of evolving technologies from current designs, the company is also putting pressure on its supply chain to find greener material alternatives and processes and examining new ways the environmental footprint of an aircraft can be better managed throughout its life-cycle. Around 90% of a current airliner, by weight, can be recycled and Boeing has pioneered new techniques with partners to recycle carbon fibres. Before an aeroplane is built, while it is in the conceptual stage, the company develops a sustainability life-cycle analysis to look downstream thirty years from now to when it is retired, taking in the parts it will need from the supply chain to where raw materials will be mined.
Watch our EUROCONTROL Stakeholder Forum on Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF)
Featuring Boeing's VP - Global Sustainability Policy & Partnerships, Brian Moran.
The road towards aviation decarbonisation is a complex one, involving many stakeholders working together towards a common goal. Some of the key elements of this are the fleet renewal programmes – with every new generation of airliners improving fuel burn by 20% to 25% – and the new operational efficiencies which airlines themselves are introducing.
So the key issue facing Boeing and all other aviation stakeholders is: how realistic is the prospect of aviation becoming a net zero-carbon emitting industry by 2050?
“In Boeing’s view the role that sustainable aviation fuels will play in this is vital and I think the government’s role to encourage, enable, incentivise is very important. I know in Europe the Refuel EU Aviation programme is being rolled out and is aimed at doing exactly that,” says Chris Raymond. “In the USA there’s a package of proposed legislation called the Sustainable Skies Act, which is taking a different approach but to the same end.”
“I also think that the pressures on the oil and gas industry, on the automotive industry, the agricultural and municipal waste industries are bringing together an interesting set of players and collaborations that I am hopeful will let us scale up sustainable aviation fuel production. I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all, there can be different solutions on different continents. I also think our industry should get some credit for recognising the action we are taking on carbon offsets now as we collectively work to scale up sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) and deploy new technologies", says Chris Raymond.
While Boeing is focused on SAF as the most realistic solution to decarbonise aviation over the next 20 – 30 years, it also has experience in hydrogen and electronic propulsion and continues to invest in these areas, given their potential longer term in the shorter-haul market segment with smaller payloads. Boeing is developing with Wisk an allelectric, autonomous passenger carrying vehicle called Cora, to understand what it takes to design, certify and integrate into airspace operations a new type of aircraft. This means looking at the infrastructure challenges, the business cases and certification issues. It has launched an urban air mobility air traffic management joint venture with Smart Cognition to figure out how these passenger-carrying electric vehicles can be safely integrated in low level airspace. For Boeing, ATM is a key component in building a more sustainable, digital aviation future.
“According to EUROCONTROL, between 8-10% of additional efficiency improvements can be gained by even more precise flying so there’s still some room to go,” says Brian Moran.
“Aeroplanes are now so digitally enabled with features like required navigational performance (RNP) and continuous descent approach capabilities that there’s a lot of technology in the aeroplane which could be unlocked if ground systems globally were ready for it. I think the investments that air navigation service providers are making here, so the ground can catch up with the air, is one opportunity.”
Flying the ‘perfect green flight’
How can we make every journey as environmentally friendly as possible?
Boeing has invested in its own digital analytics lab in Frankfurt, Germany where it studies among others advanced cockpit technologies that can be used to make air traffic management and flight operations more efficient. For Boeing, this means looking for example at how airlines can fly at different altitudes and more closely together.
Steps along the ways to decarbonising aviation
Boeing ‘s latest sustainability report highlights the programmes underway internally and with partners to reduce its carbon footprint. It achieved net-zero carbon emissions at manufacturing and worksites and in business travel in 2020 by expanding conservation and renewable energy use, while securing responsible offsets for the remaining greenhouse gas emissions. Since 2008, Boeing has voluntarily and transparently reported greenhouse gas emissions from its operations in annual CDP (formerly Carbon Disclosure Project) disclosures. In 2020, CDP awarded Boeing a leadership-level grade of A -Boeing Sustainability Report.
Boeing’s greenhouse gas reduction strategy is managed within the Global Enterprise Sustainability organisation. The management team tracks performance, procures energy, and initiates energy and emissions reduction projects across the company. This organisation sets strategic goals for greenhouse gas emissions reduction and energy conservation and to play an active role in achieving those goals. Greenhouse gas emissions from operations are monitored on a monthly basis through the use of utility metering. The emissions factors for these energy sources are validated at least annually and updated when appropriate under the World Resources Institute GHG Protocol. The energy source data and emissions factors are audited as part of the third-party verification of the company’s annual CDP disclosure, which contains a wealth of information about our emissions, reduction efforts and governance.
Boeing has been partnering across the industry on concepts for advanced aircraft that can meet specific energy efficiency, environmental and operational goals in 2030 and beyond. For example, the Transonic Truss-Braced Wing (TTBW) concept, provides a 9% improvement in fuel burn when compared to a cantilevered wing of the same technology level.
Boeing uses a Flying Laboratory to Test Industry- Changing Technologies. Launched in 2010, Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator programme accelerates innovation by taking promising technologies out of the lab and testing them in the air to solve real-world challenges for airlines, passengers and the environment. In 2020 Boeing, in partnership with Etihad Airways, conducted two test flights using digital communications that simultaneously connected pilots, air traffic controllers and airline operations centres to enhance safety, optimise routing and reduce emissions. It also tested a timedarrival management tool as part of an airspace efficiency project to further reduce emissions. The aircraft uses a blend of up to 50% sustainable aviation fuel on every ecoDemonstrator flight.