Sustainability is the buzz word in the industry right now, but FINN editor-in-chief Alan Peaford questions whether the sector is ready to deliver ‘actions’ – and to shout from the rooftops if it does

It seems there is not a single soul left in our industry that doesn’t carry the word “sustainability” in their company’s mission or vision statements.

And yet the aerospace, aviation and defence industries still remain the environmental pariahs in the eyes of the green lobby.

How much of this is based on reality? And how much is due to decades of an apologetic, head-below-the-parapet industry voice when we address the climate change issue?

Aerospace Global Forum

The “S” word will no doubt be running through the Aerospace Global Forum, which is at the heart of next month’s Farnborough Airshow, bringing industry leaders, governments and regulators together on a shared stage, ahead of the vital ICAO triennial congress in Montreal later in the year.

It was a centrepiece at the recent Global Aerospace Summit in Abu Dhabi, and at the business aviation event EBACE in Geneva last month.

No one can doubt there is a firm commitment to meet the 2050 target of zero emissions, and there is a lot of talk about the many tools at our disposal to achieve it. But while talk is cheap, the cost of achievement will be expensive. Particularly so for the already battered airline industry. And then of course, for their customers – the passengers and freight companies.

2.1% of human-induced CO2 emissions

The global aviation industry produces around 2.1 per cent of all human-induced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Aviation is responsible for just 12 per cent of all CO2 emissions from the entire transport sector, compared to say 74 per cent from road transport.

Our challenge is that unless there is a seismic change in human attitude towards travel, eCommerce and food, aviation will be a growth industry. We saw during the pandemic how much we depend on it for survival and for mental wellbeing. Across a number of business sectors there has been major release of pent-up demand for face-to-face meetings and travel.

The blip of Covid may have affected that growth trajectory, but latest stats from Eurocontrol suggest the number of flights will grow by 44 per cent between now and 2050, taking us up to 16 million a year – compared to 11 million in 2019.

Boeing and Airbus have both seen no hold up in the demand for new aircraft over the next 20 years, to meet both the anticipated demand and to replace older, less fuel-efficient engines.

Net-zero by 2050

Eamon Brennan, the director general of Eurocontrol, is confident the increased demands can be met.

“We can achieve net-zero by 2050 with a series of tangible measures requiring coordinated action by aircraft manufacturers, airlines, airports, fuel companies, ANSPs and, crucially, governments and regulators,” Brennan said.

To achieve this he says the target set by Europe of a 55 per cent cut in emissions by 2030 (compared to 1990 levels) is equally vital.

The industry as a whole sees the uptake of Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) as the key to this success. But even if we were able to switch tomorrow to 100 per cent SAF across the global fleet, we would still only have achieved a 41 per cent reduction overall.

‘What’s the hold-up?’

But that is an important 41 per cent. So, what’s the hold-up? If we can develop a vaccine from scratch to save the planet from a previously unknown virus in a little over a year, why will it take the best part 30 years to develop a solution to help save the planet (or at least a 1 per cent overall reduction).

This is a major issue. Three years ago a fleet of business jets flew from Farnborough Airport in the UK to Geneva using a blend of SAF and traditional kerosene to highlight the willingness of the industry to make progress.

The cost was high. A premium of 35 per cent was paid for the SAF. The justification was lack of demand and higher production cost.

Last month, a similar exercise was undertaken – and the premium remained the same, despite airlines around the world trialling SAF to prove the engineering case and improve their green credentials.

Etihad ‘Greenliner’ initiative

One of the highest profile was a flight carried out by the UAE’s national carrier Etihad Airways. As part of its ’Greenliner’ initiative, the airline partnered with Boeing to use a 787-9 as a testbed for sustainability initiatives (it has a similar agreement now with Airbus and the A350-900).

Etihad flew between Abu Dhabi and London Heathrow where carbon emissions were cut 72 per cent over an Etihad equivalent flight in 2019. Albeit it was previously flown on the four-engined A380, but it also flew with a 38 per cent mix of sustainable aviation fuel.

“We wanted to fly with 50 per cent, but the truth is we just couldn’t get any more. Availability is a real issue,” said Etihad CEO Tony Douglas.

SAF is blended with conventional fuels. Shell and Rolls-Royce are working together on demonstrating the use of 100 per cent SAF and exploring opportunities to help progress the use of 100 per cent SAF towards certification.

Challenges ahead

There are still many challenges before SAF can be deployed at the scale needed. They include the need for greater availability of raw materials, better supply infrastructure and clearer policy to encourage production.

In the same way there was a global need for distribution of Covid vaccines, so there is for the distribution of SAF. In regions such as Africa, for example, there has barely been a drop of SAF available on the continent although Kenya Airways was able to have some available in Nairobi to fly a 787 to Amsterdam to prove the commitment to the FlyZero target.

Chief executive Allan Kilavuka said: “With sustainability becoming an increasingly pressing issue, we recognise that genuine change will only happen if the entire aviation ecosystem works together to transform our industry.

“For Africa, we want to raise the bar on sustainability and this challenge has given us the opportunity to collaborate and compete for real change while accelerating solutions and technologies for a better tomorrow.”

Single European Sky

As Brennan said, achieving the targets goes beyond the utilisation of SAF. “The implementation of the Single European Sky is really important – this can make a change in the near-term by 2030 in the region of 8 per cent,” Brennan said.

“Market based measures (MBM) will continue to play a very significant role in helping to achieve the net-zero objective, contributing 32 per cent. Revolutionary technological changes, such as hydrogen aircraft will be in place but not at scale for large/very large transport aircraft; they are very important but it will take longer for their impact to kick in.”

The market based measures are central in the reduction of carbon emissions from aviation. Such measures assign a price to CO2 emissions ensuring that airlines take climate costs explicitly into account in their business decisions.

The European Emission Trading Scheme (EU ETS) is the mechanism that is implemented in Europe and which is complemented by the ICAO CORSIA scheme for international flights. They trigger the acceleration towards the energy transition and bridge the gap until breakthrough technologies and SAFs become widely available.

Optimised route planning

Airspace and the work of the air navigation service providers is essential. Etihad’s demonstrator flight was able to optimise route planning, including elements such as a continuous descent, and proved further savings are possible.

Only this week Airbus delivered the first Airbus A320neo aircraft equipped with the latest satellite-based landing system (SLS) technology to the UK’s Easyjet.

SLS enables pilots to perform ‘straight-in’ approaches using satellite precision when coming into land at airports, without the need for additional ground-based systems such as an ILS [instrument landing system], including in low-visibility conditions.

New technology

Technology is being developed and introduced; New ideas developing feedstock for SAF are being rolled out; but governments still have to do more to create the right environment.

There is a cost to business but there is increasing evidence that the public is behind the initiatives – how much they will need to pay to see these hopes become reality is yet to be determined.

But as an industry we need to be shouting loudly every step of the way about every success, to be clear that aerospace is committed to protecting the planet in order to continue providing access and connectivity for generations to come.

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