By Nadia Khan
The airfreight industry is facing increased criticism for its contribution to climate change. As the pressure mounts, how can the industry unite to reconcile environmental concerns and avoid a general downturn in business?
When the Queen of England starts worrying about the impact of aviation on her carbon footprint, its time for the industry to start paying more attention. Following her state visit to the US earlier this year, Buckingham Palace made a donation to an environmental charity to offset the plane journeys made by the royal party, based on the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted by the flights. With environmental concerns regarding air transport increasingly coming to the forefront in the green agenda, the aviation industry stands accused of being the most ecologically-damaging method of transport.
This indictment could spell serious consequences for the airfreight industry in particular, with some of the leading suppliers now looking at alternative, more ecologically sustainable methods of transporting goods to reduce their own environmental impact as part of a wider social responsibility agenda.
At the forefront of this new ‘environmentally friendly' generation is British retailing giant Marks & Spencer, which has a significant presence in the Middle East. "Carbon emissions and their impact on our environment is becoming an extremely important topic throughout the world. We want to contribute to the global control of such emissions," explains Nigel Rea, general manager for Marks & Spencer, UAE.
To achieve the object of carbon neutral operations, the company has pledged to take active measures to minimise the amount of airfreighted food it supplies. One of these measures includes labelling food that has been imported with a small aeroplane symbol and the word ‘airfreighted'.
"By labelling the products, customers have a choice. Many customers have become increasingly aware about the environment and want to know more about their food and how it has been transported," Rea elaborates. "In conjunction with the objective of sourcing and buying more food locally and minimising the amount of airfreighted food, Marks & Spencer has formulated a clear plan to reduce the environmental impact of its operations."
Although these measures are currently focused on the company's UK operations, in the Middle East region efforts are made to ensure that the vast majority of food products are exported from the UK to Dubai via sea freight. "Only minimal quantities are transported by air, where product shelf life and freshness are key considerations," states Rea.
Nonetheless, even the airfreighting of fresh produce is coming under scrutiny, following the announcement of the UK's main organic certification body, the Soil Association, considering to withdraw its organic approval of products imported into the UK by air cargo due to concerns regarding greenhouse gas emissions.
Nils El Accad, CEO of the Organic Food and Café in Dubai agrees that it is imperative that organic food suppliers need to work towards reducing the environmental effects of transporting their produce. "We import most of the goods by sea and make it a policy to have the lowest possible carbon foot print attached to the travel of the produce," he emphasises. "We airfreight the minimum and only those items that need to be, which we also import from as close as possible like Egypt, Uganda and India, rather than the USA and Australia."
Whilst such measures have been met with applause from environmental groups, there has been growing alarm for those food suppliers in developing countries, whose main exports are perishable goods. Whereas airfreight fruit and vegetables from Africa, for example, account for a small proportion of overall greenhouse gas emissions, the loss of trade could have devastating consequences for the farming communities from those countries.
Indeed, The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA) emphasises that potentially ‘isolated ad-hoc attempts' to find immediate solutions to the environmental impact of airfreight is not the way forward. More recently, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) has similarly echoed this viewpoint, arguing that a ban on air transport would result in only a 2% reduction of global CO2 emissions, while having a devastating effect on the 8% of global GDP it accounts for.
To focus solely at the environmental impact of air cargo flights, without taking into account the essential economic contribution it makes globally, is clearly a big mistake. Instead, in order to find a more sustainable solution, environmentalist need to be working closely with the air cargo industry to find some common ground for achieving both their goals.
IATA airlines, for instance, have a voluntary commitment to improve fuel efficiency by 10% between 2000 and 2010, and the association claims that it is well on target to meet this requirement, reporting a 5% improvement in the past two years alone.
Whilst sceptics may quickly point out that this has been mainly due to economic pressure rather than environmental, it has nonetheless resulted in significantly decreasing CO2 production related to fuel consumption. In 2005 alone, airlines' CO2 emissions came down by 1.8% per 100 revenue tonne kilometres, according to IATA.
For the Luxembourg-based all-cargo airline Cargolux, recognising and reducing its environmental impact is something it takes very seriously. "The major challenge for us is how to reduce the environmental impact of Cargolux airfreight operations in terms of emissions," says Robert Van de Weg, senior vice president sales and marketing at Cargolux. "We look at how to reduce fuel consumption, and overall how to ensure environmentally sustainable growth."
The carrier has been actively putting in place operational measures aimed at tackling the criticisms levelled at its industry. "We are investing in latest technology aircraft, continuously optimising routings, promoting continuous descent, maximising load factors and promoting reduced fuel consumption as far as possible through training of crews," he lists.
Van de Weg believes that airfreight carriers can ensure a better balance between the economic benefits and environmental issues of airfreight by ensuring a clear and constant commitment on all levels to environmentally sustainable operation. "Research and development into new fuels and aircraft will be key in the future," he adds. "Cargolux is infact the launch customer of one of these new more eco-friendly Boeing B747-8, and strongly promote the design and construction of fuel efficient aircraft."
Another major carrier in the Middle East, Emirates Skycargo, is taking delivery of 10 Boeing 747-8F's, as well as 8 Boeing 777s starting next year, in order to ensure that its fleet is newer and more compliant with air emissions standards.
"Emirates is undertaking many initiatives - within the airline and amongst the suppliers and manufacturing partners with whom it works - to minimise the impact on the environment," explains Ram Menen, Emirates divisional senior vice president.
The carrier already operates one of the world's youngest fleet, with an average age of 63 months and prioritises investing in new, technologically-advanced aircraft. "We operate modern aircraft which embrace the latest airframe and engine enhancements, producing fewer emissions and minimising impact on the climate and on the neighbourhoods over which we fly," he says.
With other, more fuel efficient next generation aircraft such as the Airbus A380 targeting unprecedented lower fuel consumption, using more modern, ecologically friendly aircraft is undoubtedly a major step forward for the industry in reducing their impact on climate change.
"Our major environmental concern is to continuously improve the environmental performance of our activities and products so that air traffic, and particularly its increasing demand, is accepted by society," explains Phillip Fonta, director of sustainable development at Airbus. "One of the key issues is climate change. We must limit the contribution to climate change and balance increasing demand for air traffic with the impact on local environment."
This philosophy has been translated into action by the aircraft manufacturer through the design and implementation of innovative technologies and processes, and climate change management.
The Airbus A380 is being marketed as the most ecologically sound aircraft, able to travel more economically long-range than any other, resulting in lower fuel consumption. Infact, the A380's emission levels for nitrogen oxides, unburned hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide are stated to be respectively 31%, 62% and 61% lower than the stringent ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) limits.
"The A380 is known as the triple environment benefit," boasts Fonta. "It is known as the most technologically advanced aircraft ever produced, and it matches unprecedented levels of efficiency and environmental performance, producing less noise and emissions and burning less fuel than its competitor. Furthermore, its capacity provides a new way to cope with air traffic growth in major markets, which means larger quantities of freight can be moved in and out of airports with each take-off or landing slot."
Fonta reels off a list of the other environmental measures pursued by Airbus as including managing the supply chain for a shared vision of environmental responsibility, mitigating the impact of manufacturing on the environment, developing intermodal transport solutions for minimal infrastructure footprint, promoting optimised aircraft operations and maintenance for enhanced environmental performance and finally inventing new best practices to disassemble and recycle end-of-life aircraft.
"Airbus is establishing an innovative and integrated environmental management system (EMS) that encompasses site activities and products, throughout the entire aircraft life cycle," he says. "We have seriously taken on board the environmental issues and have are working to create a cleaner aircraft."
With IATA predicting an average of 5.3% air cargo growth for the 2006-2010 period, such a commendable commitment to the environment will have to become more widely adopted to control the impact of the industry's aircraft emissions to climate change. Companies such as Airbus recognise the business imperative in this to ensure that airfreight does not lose its standing as one of the most efficient methods of cargo transport.
Environmental and economical answers do not necessarily have to be at logger heads; instead the best solution forward for the airfreight industry is to reconcile both sides in a common goal to ensure a healthy future for air cargo in the decades to come. And whether it is to save the world, or to save the airfreight industry, the time for action is now.For all the latest transport news from the UAE and Gulf countries, follow us on Twitter and Linkedin, like us on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube page, which is updated daily.