“Only through the introduction of radical, disruptive technology will we be able to decarbonize aviation. Fortunately, innovation is in aviation’s DNA”ICAO President Salvatore Sciacchitano
Air transport generated 915 million tonnes of CO2 in 2019, accounting for 2.8% of CO2 generated by human activities. The number of global air passengers and cargo volumes is expected to increase significantly in the next 30 years especially as global economies recover from COVID-19. The widespread acceptance among the aviation industry through commitment to reducing emissions by airlines, OEMs and airports, and agreements among aviation groups will be crucial to reducing overall CO2 emissions.
In 2007, IATA, which represents 290 airlines that make up 82% of total air traffic, outlined its vision towards net-zero emissions in the short, medium and long term.
- An average improvement in fuel efficiency of 1.5% per annum from 2009 to 2020
- Carbon neutral growth from 2020
- A reduction of 50% net aviation CO2 emissions by 2050 relative to 2005 levels
In 2010, ICAO, through its 193 member states laid out two main resolutions for aviation:
- An annual 2% average fuel efficiency improvement from 2010 to 2020 and an aspirational 2% improvement per annum from 2021 to 2050.
- To achieve carbon neutral growth from 2020.
In support of this, ICAO established the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) in 2016, the first worldwide market-based scheme in the aviation sector to address CO2 emissions.
Investing in technological innovation
Seven of the world’s leading OEMs published a joint statement at COP26 in November 2021 reaffirming their commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. They announced three key focus areas:
- Advancing the state-off-the-art in aircraft and engine design and technology
- Supporting increased availability and adoption of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) and investigating hydrogen as a fuel of the future
- Continuing to develop novel technologies that will eventually enable net-zero carbon aviation while maintaining the safety and quality of standards of the industry.
Across the aviation industry, each new generation of aircraft is roughly 15% to 20% more fuel efficient, and manufacturers invest around $15 billion each year for research into greater efficiency.
Adoption of SAF
A key element to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 is the adoption of SAF. SAF has been around since 2008, with more than 300,000 flights using it blended with regular aviation fuel without the need to modify engines or aircraft. While the aviation industry continues research and development into electric and hydrogen technologies, SAF will be crucial at least in the medium term, especially for medium- and long-haul flights, which account for the bulk of CO2 emissions from aviation. SAF reduces CO2 emissions by around 80% compared with fossil fuels. Robert Boyd, IATA’s Assistant Director of Aviation Environment and Head of SAF estimates that in order to meet the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050, 65% of all aviation fuel needs to be SAF (today, SAF makes up 1% of all fuel. This figure is expected to increase to 2% by 2025).
Operational improvements and infrastructure efficiencies
In the air, operational improvements such as new and efficient air traffic control techniques can help in reducing fuel burn and emissions – landing using a continuous descent into an airport by making procedural changes and techniques saves at least 150kg of CO2 per flight, and shortening flying times by a minute saves at least 100kg of CO2 per flight. For example, the revision of the Single European Sky regulatory framework to reduce fragmentation of the airspace above Europe and improve performance of air traffic management to avoid congestion and suboptimal flight routes is expected to reduce air transport emissions by up to 10%.
All elements of the aviation industry – from OEMs investing in more efficient airframes, airlines increasing the take up rate of SAF, airports providing infrastructure for SAF and more efficient air traffic management systems, have a role to play in reducing CO2 emissions. These efforts must be in tandem with regulatory changes to achieve a greener aviation industry.