The phrase "Boeing, environmental champion" doesn't quite roll naturally off the tongue. Yet the Seattle-based aviation giant is positioning itself as a leader in the fight against global warming—even as its own planes encircle and warm the globe.
This past May, Boeing, along with 12 other Fortune 500 corporations, joined in a Pew Center for Global Climate Change media blitz supporting the science behind global warming scenarios. The Pew Center's corporate members endorsed the Kyoto Protocol, the yet-to-be ratified international climate change treaty, and called for further steps to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions.
The Pew Center campaign marks a fundamental shift in the public debate over global climate change. Until recently, the debate has been distorted by fossil-fuel-industry-financed contrarian scientists who dispute the threat of global warming.
"[The Pew group] distinguishes itself as an industry coalition. They accept the science of climate change and that it warrants precautionary action," says Kelly Sims, science policy director with Washington, DCbased Ozone Action. "Being able to publicly state that is a big step." With technology-oriented corporations like Boeing, Maytag, Whirlpool, United Technologies, 3M, and American Electric Power worrying out loud about the weather, the climate-change contrarians are becoming increasingly marginalized.
The naysayers are also being overwhelmed by evidence. In 1995, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the planet's climate science brain trust, pinned at least part of the blame for this century's rising global temperatures on human fossil-fuel use. And there is no question that the rate of rise in temperature is itself on the rise. Last year was the hottest year on record, while 1998 is shaping up to be even hotter. The nine hottest years in recorded history have all occurred in the past 11 years. Scientists studying unprecedented glacial melting in the heart of Antarctica have concluded that the Antarctic ice sheet is in danger of collapsing. And El Niño's growing frequency and intensity have been linked to the world's overall warming trend.
Boeing scientists, who regularly deal with atmospheric chemistry, are well positioned to appreciate the strength of the science behind global warming, say environmentalists familiar with the aviation industry. Boeing spokesman Dean Tugus concurs, saying, "Our involvement in this was not a sudden event. We have been immersed in the details for a long time."
Airplanes are under increasing scientific scrutiny for their role in heating the earth. The IPCC is reviewing aviation's effect on the atmosphere, with a major report due out early next year. A draft of the report currently circulating concludes that aviation contributes approximately 3 percent of the heating caused by human-released greenhouse gases. The actual figure may be considerably higher—possibly on the order of 10 percent, according to Paul Wennberg of the California Institute of Technology.
The effect of plane emissions is made greater by the fact that airplanes do the bulk of their polluting between 10 and 12 kilometers above the earth. In this region, nitrogen oxides in jet exhaust are rapidly converted to ozone—a powerful greenhouse gas. Preliminary results of Wennberg's research indicate that aviation's toll is approximately half that of automobile emissions.
Inevitably, airplanes will fall under measures to reduce emissions as their proportion of the problem grows. Aircraft travel is growing rapidly and is projected to double over the next decade. This may be part of the reason Boeing is taking the opposite tack generally taken by American corporations threatened with greater regulation. Since greenhouse-related new rules are inevitable, Boeing is best off having a voice in how they are drafted.
Tugus cites other reasons for Boeing's apparent enlightenment. "The economics of operating an airplane demand a lot of attention to weight and efficiency," he says, adding that lighter planes that pollute less have lower operating costs. Moreover, lessening its airplanes' impacts on the atmosphere may give Boeing a competitive advantage over its rival, Airbus.
Boeing's gambit may also lead to new, exploitable markets in the near future. Cleaner-burning jet engines that emit less greenhouse gases may have important applications on the ground—in electricity generation, for example. Boeing is also intent on developing a new class of supersonic passenger planes. Twenty-five years ago, the company's SST dream was scrapped because of concerns about impact on the stratospheric ozone layer; a new SST can be developed if it won't harm the ozone layer or contribute to global warming, says Tugus.
However "enlightened," the company's environmentalism begs a question: Is what's good for Boeing really good for the atmosphere? Some environmentalists are suspicious of corporate greenhouse champions like Boeing, noting that it's not clear yet what exactly they want. "As far as I know, [the Pew coalition members] haven't lobbied for or against anything," says Ozone Action's Kelly Sims. "They support some sort of action to do something, but that's where it gets murky. It's not clear what policies they support."