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Cargo's Carbon Emissions

The air freight sector has an enormous role to play if aviation is to meet its environmental targets

The image of old, gas-guzzling freighter conversions chugging their way from one stop to another is wrong. The modern airfreight sector simply cannot afford such inefficiency.

Airfreight already compares favorably with other transport modes. Maritime shipping accounts for about 4% of global carbon emissions. Air transport as a whole represents just 2% of global carbon emissions and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) forecasts this to grow to 3% by 2050.

But air cargo’s growing green credentials are most clearly visible in a number of new trends and initiatives. The inexorable change in fleet statistics is a case in point. Although the average age of the cargo fleet in service is 24.65 years, according to Ascend, and there are still 1,237 freighter conversions in service, these figures are falling fast.

There are about 210 new freighters on the order books­—aircraft with superior operating economics and environmental performance. Orders in 2011 made it a record year for new freighters despite the lackluster cargo traffic figures, while freighter conversions have hit an all time low.

Going lightweight

Other airfreight innovations bear close environmental scrutiny. Unit Load Device (ULD) containers have been extensively modified, for example.

After thorough testing, Lufthansa Cargo has settled on a new lightweight container that not only satisfies all cargo requirements, including handling and security, but is also some 15% lighter than the previous 80kg model. Once full roll-out of the lightweight container is achieved in 2015, Lufthansa Cargo will save about 2,180 tonnes of fuel—roughly 6,867 tonnes of CO2—per year.

Etihad Airways has also moved to lightweight containers, provided by its partner Jettainer. Each flight will be 200kg lighter as a result, leading to a reduction in emissions of 5,000 tonnes of CO2 in 2012.

Other developments involve the entire cargo supply chain. Logistics companies use recyclable packaging while Air France-KLM Cargo, together with the Dutch company Driessen, has created a composite pallet that will help the airline cut CO2 emissions and significantly reduce the use of aluminum. Ground handling has been transformed too, with much of the cargo-handling equipment running on alternative power sources.

Paper free

It is e-freight that is the value chain’s big ticket item though. In basic terms, e-freight will remove vast amounts of paper from the freight supply chain, from tax declarations to security clearance. This will take a lot of weight off the aircraft as well as reduce paper use on the ground. In environmental terms, this will make a tremendous difference.

The Global Air Cargo Advisory Group (GACAG) is driving the implementation of e-freight with the aim of having complete e-freight in capable trade lanes by the end of 2015.

Terence Cook, Manager of IT Cargo at Mercator, part of the Emirates Group IT, says e-freight is a great example of how simple innovations can help carriers and handlers significantly reduce operating costs and conserve environment. 

“Organizations can not only adopt this to exchange information with industry players, but extend the e-freight concept within its value chain,” he says. “For example, the implementation of paperless workflows can significantly simplify internal work processes for tasks such as approvals, filing and reporting.”

Although, along with all other airlines, cargo carriers participate in the various regulatory requirements, including the purchasing of carbon credits for the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme, an increasing regulatory focus on cargo emissions and aviation’s own tough targets necessitate further improvements.

“Specifically, there is a need for a comprehensive cargo carbon calculator,” says Paul Steele, IATA Director, Aviation Environment. “The correct comparisons must be made.”

Food miles debate

Steele highlights the “food miles” debate to illustrate his point. A few years ago, certain green organizations asked for food flown into countries to be spurned in favor of local produce.

Studies showed, however, that it was often better for the environment if food was flown in from countries that didn’t rely on heated greenhouses, tractors and fertilizers but instead used sunshine, manual labor and natural compost. The argument even ignored the economic benefits of having a viable agricultural industry in a developing country.

As Gareth Thomas, UK Minister for Trade and Development at the height of the food miles debate in 2008, noted, “Driving 6.5 miles to buy your shopping emits more carbon than flying a pack of Kenyan green beans to the United Kingdom.”

Generating the exact figures for air cargo is a challenge though. The full impact of airfreight is not as apparent as passenger travel. A package going from Beijing to London could travel along a number of different routes, with stops and processing varying accordingly.

There is also the complex question of bellyhold cargo versus a full freighter service. Clearly, any carbon calculation must be system-wide, which involves a multitude of partners and a multitude of procedures from the point of manufacture to delivery.

“IATA understands that emissions result from the entire supply chain and welcomes multi-modal cooperation based on agreed standards,” says Des Vertannes, IATA Head of Cargo.

“We do need proper metrics and this is something that IATA is looking at very closely. Individual companies have their own measuring matrix but an industry standard could prove very beneficial.”

An ambition for change

Vertannes believes education will be the key to ensuring the conditions and ambition for change. “Global trade is vital to emerging economies,” he says. “And it is vital to much of daily life, from the clothes on your back to the food on your plate.

“Once that is completely understood then the focus and investment that we are seeing on the passenger side will be extended to cargo,” he adds. “The lights in washrooms that only activate when somebody is present should be installed in cargo facilities too. It comes down to details. Air cargo is at a stage where we can consider the finer points of environmental mitigation.”

Top Marks

United Parcel Service (UPS) has long been serious about the environmental question. It came top in the consumer shipping sector in the Climate Counts scorecard, an organization that brings consumers and companies together to fight global climate change.

Mike Mangeot, Spokesperson for UPS, says the integrator’s goal “is to help shape regulations that improve the environmental performance of aviation while allowing for the free flow of commerce on which the world economy depends.  

“UPS is a large transportation company, but we’re working very hard to leave a small footprint,” he continues. “This holds as true for our airline as it does for our ground operations.

“As a socially responsible company, we believe that environmentally-friendly aviation practices are the right thing to do, and they make for good business, too.”

UPS has embarked on several green initiatives. For example, it uses an environmentally friendly paint, which eliminates hazardous chemicals as well as the typical need for a third coat of paint. This saves about 300 pounds of weight per aircraft, reducing fuel burn and CO2 output.

UPS also continues to experiment with Continuous Descent Approaches (CDAs) in several locations, including Louisville, Sacramento, East Midlands, Cologne and Warsaw. Results suggest CDAs help reduce landing noise by 30%, nitrous oxide emissions by 34%, and save 40-70 gallons of fuel per approach.


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