The aviation industry’s path to net zero comes with “considerable risks of delay or failure” for those seeking to find solutions to reduce carbon emissions, said Jonathan Berger, managing director at Alton Aviation Consultancy.

Sustainability is an issue that has risen up the agenda in the last decade. IATA recently established the Fly Net Zero commitment for airlines to achieve net zero carbon by 2050.

The pledge brings air transport in line with the objectives of the Paris Agreement to limit global warming to below 2°C.

Net zero

The UK government also has a ‘Jet Zero’ strategy which sets out timeline for reaching net zero aviation, which it hopes will enable passengers to fly “guilt-free”.

This includes new targets to reduce aviation’s carbon emissions and prevent them from increasing above pre-pandemic levels in future – with 2019 envisaged as the peak year for aviation emissions.

But Berger warned that achieving net zero will be “no small feat” for the aviation industry despite it being an objective the sector is “focused on with great ambition and intensity”.

Jonathan Berger, managing director at Alton Aviation Consultancy

He said: “In the aviation value chain, most stakeholders have set themselves stretching goals, and significant investments are happening in electric and hybrid electric propulsion as promising alternatives for shorter range flight.

“Although hydrogen is seen as the most promising technology for long-haul, there remain substantial hurdles to clear, not least supply challenges with ‘green hydrogen’.

“The future of sustainable flight could be transformed by such industry breakthroughs, but these do not come without considerable risks of delay or failure.

“The current lack of proven and commercially viable low-carbon technologies means the sector will rely substantially on sustainable aviation fuel in striving to reach net zero.”

Sustainable aviation fuel

Under the UK’s Jet Zero proposal, a sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) mandate seeks to ensure at least 10% of jet fuel is SAF by 2030.

It is the government’s ambition to have at least five commercial-scale SAF plants under construction in the UK by 2025,

But Berger said: “Demand for SAFs is abundant but limited supply is stalling the uptake of this option.

“United, Emirates and British Airways are leading on investment funding to support the development of SAF technology. Whilst this is welcome, more substantial action is needed by others.

“Financial institutions, government and energy majors will have to overcome their scepticism to new technologies and start backing a SAF ramp up, as it appears vital for meeting the 2050 deadline.”

He concluded: “Ultimately, sustainable flight will be a mosaic of solutions, a part of which may also be contrail avoidance. AI is being used to help airlines examine ways to reduce the creation of contrails, which has potential as a cost-effective means of reducing aviation’s footprint.

“For example, Google Research is working with American Airlines and Breakthrough Energy to collate data from satellite imagery and flight paths to identify routes which will support this objective.”
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