Air travel has increased 8 fold over the last 4 decades, and is expected to continue this upward trend. Although airplanes are seen as environmentally unfriendly gas guzzlers, they are actually more fuel efficient than many cars. This is due to the high capacity of most commercial planes. Instead of miles/gallon of fuel, it is miles/gallon/passenger. Airbus along with the rest of the aerospace industry has dramatically improved the efficiency of their engines leading to a sharp decrease in emissions and fuel consumption. The aerospace industry as a whole accounts for about 2-3% of global emissions (EPA), which doesn’t seem like much at first. However, this is still one billion tons of CO2. Additionally, half of the greenhouse effect from the aerospace industry comes from inefficient combustion resulting in contrails that have a greenhouse effect hundreds of times stronger than CO2. Airbus has improved its efficiency, sustainability and impact in the air as well as on the ground. Although many of Airbus’ materials are environmentally detrimental to manufacture, they are looking into alternatives as well as improving social sustainability throughout their company.
The main part of the fuselage is generally aluminum alloy. Aluminum mining and refining is quite detrimental to the environment, but is highly recyclable. Airbus also uses carbon fibre reinforced plastic. Airbus has been using a lot of carbon fiber due to its lightweight, high performance, and it requires less maintenance on the plane. Carbon fiber quite often uses petroleum, but Airbus is looking into using natural sources such as algae, bamboo and sugarcane waste. The carbon fiber usually requires epoxy which is generally used in the manufacturing of adhesives, plastics, paints, coatings. Epoxy is safe for the environment once it sets, but in liquid form it can be detrimental. Although it is not biodegradable, the surface it applies to lasts longer. Although there are many other materials that go into the various parts of the plane (cockpit, fuselage, seats, carpeting, cabinet, etc.), the airplanes are very recyclable. Airbus along with Tarmac Aerosave have established an effective way of dismantling and recycling the entire Airbus aircraft product range in an environmentally responsible way. Upwards of 90% of the aircraft can be recycled, and the nonrecyclable parts are disposed of in a safe fashion. The paint that goes onto the airplane is enamel or epoxy. As mentioned before, epoxy is generally safe for the environment, but spraying it on can cause harm to people if they do not take necessary precautions. Enamel used to have many unnecessary and dangerous chemicals (lead, VOCs), but for the most part they have been phased out.
Airbus has factories throughout Europe, but also in America, China and Canada. Airbus is very transparent with their production facilities, showing the factory locations and what is being produced at the factory. Although there are many environmentally detrimental processes that are used to create materials, Airbus is transparent with it. One of the main materials in the airplane fuselage is aluminum alloy. Aluminum starts in an ore called bauxite, which requires open pit mining. This requires large amounts of land to be bulldozed away to get to the ore. Although there is little to no drilling, the landscape is severely harmed and the biodiversity is affected for generations to come. The refining process of aluminum is also incredibly resource intensive and causes carbon emissions, creates air and water pollution, and even noise and heat pollution. Airbus gets its aluminum from Southwest Aluminium (Group) Co., Ltd. (SWA), which is one of the biggest aluminum companies in China. China tends to have a poor reputation when it comes to the environment and its mining/manufacturing. Although there was not too much information about this company and its environmental practices, it did receive an award for State Science and Technology Prizes. However, this award has no relation to environmental safety or sustainability. In prior years, carbon fibers required copious amounts of heat to create and spew out lots of greenhouse gases. It also comes from petroleum and other nonrenewable substances. With the recent use of plants, the process did not produce excess heat or any toxic byproducts. Plus it is no longer reliant on the oil industry.
Airbus has very clear cut goals for its emissions over the next 40 years, and shows progress since 1990. Since 1990 airbus has reduced emission per passenger kilometer by 50%, and plan to be zero emission by 2060. This is a hefty goal that is only achievable through partnerships with various entities such as ATAG, and Clean Sky which promote sustainable growth and developing eco-friendly technologies. From 2020 onward Airbus is going to cap its emissions, so even if there is an increase in travel, the emissions will not rise.
Airbus also builds satellites that provide very important geospatial information that allow scientists to detect environmental changes. Using these satellites, scientists are able to track the carbon intake of trees, variations in temperature, air quality and humidity. This allows for a better understanding of Earth’s systems, helps governments and aid groups prepare for and manage disasters, and generate environmental impact assessments.
Airbus was the first aerospace company to receive an ISO 14001 certification, which sets out a criteria for environmental management. more efficient use of resources and reduction of waste. Since receiving the ISO 14001 certification, Airbus has successfully had a 30% reduction in energy consumption, 43% reduction in water consumption, 46% reduction in non-recycled waste production, and a 34% reduction in CO2. For their next planes, Airbus has designed 3 hydrogen powered aircrafts. The aircraft are powered through hydrogen combustion through modified gas combustion engines. These designs are set to be developed by 2035, or at the minimum have a zero emission commercial aircraft by this point.