Aviation is set to emerge leaner and greener after the shock of the COVID-19 pandemic. FINN editor-in-chief Alan Peaford says steps to create a more sustainable future are already underway.

The first time I realised just how important it is that, when it comes to the issue of sustainability, aviation is seen as part of the solution and not the problem, came when my 6-year-old grandson came home from school and admonished me for flying an aeroplane since I was blowing out all that smoke into the sky.

Until that moment, he had been drawing aircraft, idolising his commercial pilot uncle and begging for another opportunity to go flying. But the steamroller of public perception is grinding down the positive work the industry has been doing towards the whole sustainability issue, security, social, economic as well as environment.

Where public attention has helped, is by the way it has prompted action from the aerospace industry rather than just words. At this week’s AGM for the international airline body IATA it was perhaps no surprise that there were constant references to Corsia – the commitment to bring emissions down to half the 2005 levels by 2050 and achieve net zero as quickly as possible.

Development of Sustainable Aviation Fuel critical to achieving targets

Indeed, the global association called on governments worldwide to support the development of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) as a critical step to achieving its targets,

“We have long known that an energy transition to SAF is the game-changer. But energy transitions need government support. The cost of SAF is too high and supplies too limited. This crisis is the opportunity to change that. Putting economic stimulus funds behind the development of a large-scale, competitive SAF market would be a triple win—creating jobs, fighting climate change and sustainably connecting the world,” said Alexandre de Juniac, the outgoing director general and CEO of IATA.

Currently SAF is on average between 2-4 times more expensive than fossil fuels with current global production of about 100 million litres a year which is just 0.1 per cent of the total amount of aviation fuel consumed by the industry.

Electric and hydrogen powered aircraft may be a decade away

In the cross-industry report Waypoint 2050 by the Air Transport Action Group, SAF was seen as the most important pathway to achieving the aviation industry’s climate goals. The report also noted the potential for electric and hydrogen powered aircraft in aviation’s climate action but said that commercially applicable solutions are at least a decade away and offer the greatest potential for short-haul aircraft. Long-haul operations are likely to remain dependent on liquid fuels for some time to come.

But in a part of the world most famous for its hydrocarbons, action is already focusing on new fuels. As well as already manufacturing its own SAF, Abu Dhabi is expanding hydrogen production. The emirate’s crown prince said the UAE has the chance to capitalise on the emerging global market for hydrogen by making use of existing infrastructure, as well as Abu Dhabi’s vast reserves of natural gas.

State oil company Adnoc already produces hydrogen for its downstream operations and is now exploring the potential to help meet the demand for hydrogen and ammonia derived from natural gas. Scientists in the Gulf state believe that it will be able to produce truly “green” hydrogen by using renewable sources such as solar energy to extract the gas from water using electrolysis.

Hydrogen included in UK’s “green industrial revolution”

German engine maker MTU is already working on developing powerplants that can operate on hydrogen and governments are now sitting up to take notice.

This month British Prime Minister Boris Johnson included hydrogen in his £12 billion ($15.93bn) plan for a “green industrial revolution” which was backed by the country’s Chancellor.

UK industry backed the move with UK Airport Operators chief executive Karen Dee saying “Sustainable fuels are an essential part of aviation’s plans to cut aviation net carbon emissions to zero by 2050 alongside helping with air quality, as sustainable fuels have significantly lower particulate emissions. Airspace modernisation will also be a vital part of our sustainable future, as the National Infrastructure Strategy acknowledges. In particular, it is expected to reduce overall noise impacts for communities around airports.”

Airbus has already shown its plans to develop hydrogen-fuelled airliners for its next generation of narrowbody and turboprop aircraft and a whole raft of innovators – and established manufacturers – are developing electric or hybrid electric aircraft for the exciting urban and regional air mobility systems.

Aviation sector will be “leaner and cleaner” after pandemic

Addressing the Royal Aeronautical Society’s virtual Climate Change Conference in early November, UK transport secretary, Grant Shapps said he believed that the aviation sector would recover from the coronavirus crisis, but “when it does, it won’t be to simply pick up from where we were at the start of 2020”.

Rather, it will be “a leaner, more resilient and more ambitious industry” with a “cleaner perspective” going forward, he said.

“If there’s one great positive that today’s aviation sector can cling to, it’s that the market is always going to grow over the years and decades ahead,” says Shapps. “But this time, aviation has to earn the right to grow by addressing its environmental impacts.”

The challenge is to “develop technologies that will allow aviation to take advantage of increasing consumer demand”, adds the transport secretary, noting that reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, noise and pollution is “now aviation’s passport to a brighter, more profitable future”.

A lifecycle approach to sustainability

But of course, sustainability is about so much more than the environment. While not harming our planet is vital, there are also social and economic factors to be taken into account too. The defence industry is not excluded from this and plans are in place to hold a ‘Defence Sustainability’ event in January.

I talked to Ben Sawford from KBR, one of the sponsors of the conference and he explained why the event was vital to get more in the industry on message.

“I think there’s an opportunity to talk about things that are far broader than perhaps people assume. It’s not just about hydrogen vehicles, it’s not just about recycling plastic, it’s about the full sustainability lifecycle. It’s a circular economy, it’s looking at how we can make sustainable operations in the field and the theatre of war. It’s about wasting less, it’s about using less water and less resources. And inevitably, actually looking at it from an economic standpoint, which I don’t think has always been part and parcel of the sustainability argument, even though it clearly is all about people profit and planet, but actually, that profitability piece isn’t always considered.”

And that’s what I will be reminding my grandchildren and their teachers. While we may quietly applaud the efforts of the eco-warriors and their success at winning the war of words. There is always more to the story.

Our industry IS taking sustainability seriously. Transport will change, Innovation in things like Hyperloop using vacuum and magnetic force; ground vehicles switching to hydrogen, airlines adopting SAF while hybrid electric, hydrogen and other technologies are developed for aircraft; and urban and regional air systems are put in place. Each single airline job supports 28 other jobs outside the airline; defence manufacturers create almost two and half times value for every dollar invested in them. It may take time – but progress is never delivered overnight – but our commitment to sustainability is real, and I hope this will ease the conscience of my grandson and we can fly again together towards a greener future.

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