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Cost-effective fuel-efficiency technologies could reduce new aircraft fuel consumption by 25% to 40% in near- to mid-term: New study

Feasible improvements dwarf the efficiency of new aircraft designs currently proposed or planned by manufacturers

Substantial gap highlights need for more effective public policies to push energy efficiency in the aviation sector

27 September 2016—The rate of fuel efficiency improvement of new aircraft could be more than doubled through 2034, from about 1% per year today to 2.2%, using cost-effective emerging technologies that improve engine efficiency, reduce aerodynamic drag, and trim aircraft empty weight. But new designs coming from aircraft manufacturers don't approach that rate of progress. More forceful energy-efficiency policies in the aviation sector are needed to close the gap.

These are among the main conclusions of a report released today by the International Council on Clean Transportation. The report summarizes the results of the first independent, bottom-up cost assessment of fuel-efficiency technologies for aircraft expected to be commercially viable in the near- and mid-term. Carried out in cooperation with a blue-ribbon panel of technical experts and consultants, using NASA and DoD-approved models to evaluate aviation technology programs, it assesses over 45 discrete technologies.

The study found that intensively deploying emerging cost-effective technologies could reduce fuel consumption of new aircraft by approximately 25% in 2024 and 40% in 2034, compared to the present. Such gains would dwarf the fuel efficiency of new “project” aircraft designs being brought forward by manufacturers.

Accelerating the adoption of new technologies could cut fleet-wide CO2 emissions from U.S. airlines by 6% in 2030 and 30% in 2050, compared with a business-as-usual case, and provide a significant boost to the U.S. effort to reach its climate goals under the Paris Agreement.

They could also translate into appreciable benefits to consumers. Airlines could cut fuel costs by 19% from 2025 to 2050, compared with the baseline case, by adopting cost-effective technologies. If passed along to the consumer, these savings could lower ticket prices by up to $20 for short-haul flights, and $105 for longer flights.

The disparity between what it is technically feasible to achieve in making aircraft more fuel efficient over the near- and mid-term and what aircraft manufacturers are poised to deliver points to a need for more farsighted and energetic public policy.

"As the International Civil Aviation Organization gathers this week in Montreal to discuss policies to offset international emissions growth, we shouldn’t forget the need for policies to actually reduce emissions from aircraft,” says Dan Rutherford, ICCT’s aviation program director. “There are a variety of cost-effective technologies to improve fuel efficiency in the pipeline that could benefit from policy support, notably a vigorous US EPA CO2 standard.”

Public policies to promote aircraft fuel efficiency include robust performance standards for new aircraft, economic incentives to provide market pull for new technologies by promoting fleet turnover, and research support to defray the costs of maturing new technologies.

“This study shows that aircraft manufacturers can in fact literally redouble their efforts to reduce emissions,” says Anastasia Kharina, an aviation researcher with the ICCT. “And they should. Deploying the full range of technologies under development — aerodynamic improvements and lightweight materials in addition to better engines — would provide significant benefits to airlines, consumers, and the environment.”

Contact: Dan Rutherford, ICCT aviation program lead (San Francisco), dan@theicct.org

Publication details

Cost assessment of near and mid-term technologies to improve new aircraft fuel efficiency

Anastasia Kharina, Daniel Rutherford, and Mazyar Zeinali

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