As international air travel rebounds after COVID-19 restrictions, greenhouse gas emissions from aviation are expected to rise dramatically – and with it, scrutiny of the industry’s environmental credentials.
As the climate change threat rapidly worsens, can aviation make the transition to a low-carbon future – and perhaps even reach net-zero emissions? This is possible because of the significant technological and energy disruptions that are looming for the industry.
However, there are still significant challenges. Achieving a net-zero aviation sector will require a huge collaborative effort from industry and government – and consumers can also play their part.
The aviation sector’s progress in cutting emissions has been disappointing to date. For example, February last year was a disappointing month. Research on the world’s largest 58 airlines found even the best-performing ones were not doing anywhere near enough to cut emissions.
The industry reaffirmed its commitment to a plan called the “The” at the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow. International Aviation: Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Programme.
The scheme relies on carbon offsetting, which essentially pays another actor to reduce emissions on its behalf at lowest cost, and doesn’t lead to absolute emissions reduction in aviation. The scheme encourages alternative cleaner engines, but the levels of emissions reductions vary greatly between fuels.
In general, governments have failed to provide strong leadership for the aviation sector to reduce its carbon emissions. Because international aviation pollution is not included in any country’s emissions ledger, governments are not motivated to take action. The complex policy environment of aviation, which involves multiple actors all over the world, is difficult to navigate. However, COVID-19 has significantly jolted the aviation and travel sector, presenting an opportunity to build back better – and differently.
Griffith University recently hosted a webinar seriesIndustry, academic and government experts will be discussing decarbonising aviation. The sessions covered the most promising policy and practical developments in net-zero aviation as well as the biggest hurdles.
Nation’s rise ahead
Some governments are leading in the drive for change in the aviation sector. As an example, government policyThe Swedish aviation industry has developed to make Sweden climate neutral by 2045. RoadmapTo ensure that domestic flights are fossil-free by 2030, and that all flights departing from Sweden are fossil-free by 2045.
To achieve fossil-free flight, jet fuel must be replaced with alternative fuels such as sustainable fuels and electric and hydrogen propulsion.
The United Kingdom is finalizing their strategy net-zero aviationBy 2050, a public body called UK Research and Innovation will be SupportThe development of new aviation technologies, such as hybrid-electric regional aircraft.
Australia lacks a strategic framework and emissions reduction targets to assist in the transition of the aviation sector. The Emerging Aviation Technology ProgramIt aims to reduce carbon emissions among other goals. However, it seems to have a strong focus upon freight-carrying drones. Urban air vehiclesFixed-wing aircraft is better.
Building tomorrow’s aircraft
In the last five years, low-emission aircraft technology has advanced significantly. Advancements include electric hybrid aircraft (powered by hydrogen or a battery) – such as that being developed by Airbus, Rolls Royce and Zero Avia – as well as sustainable aviation fuels.
Each of these technologies can reduce carbon emissions, but only battery and hydrogen electric options significantly reduce non-CO₂ climate impacts such as oxides of nitrogen (NOx), soot particles, oxidised sulphur species, and water vapour.
Electric aircraft must be powered by renewable energy sources in order to produce zero emissions. Electric and hydrogen aircraft are likely have a better environmental impact than conventional aircraft. LowerEnergy and maintenance CostsUnlike conventional aircraft.
We expect to see a rapid rise in electric and hybrid aircraft for short-haul, commuter and general aviation. A rise in the use of sustainable aviation fuel is also possible.
Electric planes are now flying but commercial operations will not be possible until at least 2023, as the aircraft must pass rigorous safety and certification testing.
Despite some efforts by industry leaders and governments to make air travel a net-zero business, there are still significant practical and strategic challenges. Conversion to the mainstream commercial aviation is not happening fast enough.
Industry and government need to develop a clear strategy for reducing emissions. They should also set interim targets for 2030-2040 in order to decarbonise Australia’s aviation sector. This would ensure that the industry is competitive and on track to net-zero emissions by 2020.
Strategic attention and proactive action are also required to:
Advancement in aircraft and fuel innovation and design
Update regulatory and certification procedures for new types aircraft
Increase production and deployment of new aviation fuels & technologies
Reduce fuel consumption through efficiency in route and airtraffic management
create “greener” airport operations and infrastructure
Build capability with pilots, aerospace engineers.
Itineraries and flights can cause emissions Variations can be substantial. Consumers can take action by choosing the lowest impact option and offsetting any emissions generated by their flight via a credible program. Consumers can also choose not to fly with operators or airlines that have committed to zero emissions.
Net-zero aviation need not remain a flight of fantasy, but to make it a reality, emissions reduction must be at the heart of aviation’s pandemic bounce-back.