The commercial aviation industry is facing an even bigger long-term challenge than COVID: the need for greener skies.
While the pandemic has decimated air travel, it’s a relatively short-term issue. The industry is not on track to achieve its ambitious carbon-cutting targets by 2050, and with consumers becoming increasingly climate-savvy, profits could suffer post-COVID unless the industry becomes more sustainable.
New tech solutions are emerging to boost efficiency and cut emissions, and government regulations are tightening, but the improvements aren’t happening fast enough. The industry needs to take major transformational steps, with manufacturers and companies across the supply chain making a coordinated effort to cut emissions.
This will give the industry a chance to determine its own future, rather than having it determined by regulators.
While commercial flights only contributed about 2% of worldwide greenhouse emissions in 2019, that figure looks set to hit 20% by 2050 without serious intervention. The industry has set a goal of cutting emissions to half of 2005 level by 2050, but progress has so far been limited.
Commercial aviation, on average, tends to increase in efficiency by about 1.5% every year, and we’re likely to see that continue as innovations like aerodynamic winglets and high-bypass-ratio (HBR) engines, which send more air around jet turbines and so require less fuel, become commonplace.
However, air traffic is projected to grow by 1% to 4%, meaning net emissions will continue to rise unless more action is taken, and the industry will miss its 2050 targets by 800 to 1,400 million tons of CO2.
Advanced technologies are in development that could help cut emissions further, but while some are already tried and tested (like open-rotor engines, which could be ready for service by 2030), others, like electric or hybrid engines, still have further to go to reach their potential and would be costly to implement.
Sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) are among the most mature of these new technologies, and would work with existing engines. They could cut the 2050 target gap in half.– but thanks to supply and production constraints, they’re unlikely to bridge it altogether. To supply 50% of the industry’s fuel by 2050, production capacity for SAFs would have to increase 25-fold, at a cost of about $600 billion.
This means OEMs are currently in the position of hedging their bets, adopting technologies they know will work like HBPR or open-rotor engines, while also developing innovative designs. Airframe manufacturers will most likely go for longer-term strategies like battery power or hydrogen combustion and fuel cells. Both need to decide how to time their investments. Fleet replacement programs typically take 10 or 15 years, so they’ll need to bet on innovations that will be ready to use by 2035.
Regulations intended to drive down demand have had limited impact because there are no viable alternatives to flying on many routes, so regulators need to look more at positive incentives such as subsidies to encourage the development and adoption of new technologies.
We believe that regulators need to move beyond the current focus on demand and create more positive incentives. In other sectors, regulatory mechanisms such as subsidies have helped promote change, with electric vehicles, for example, starting to replace those powered by internal combustion engines and renewable power generation replacing some fossil-fuel-based sources. In the aerospace sector, similar approaches could spur R&D investments and the adoption of new technologies.
To succeed in hitting 2050 targets, the entire industry will need to collaborate to develop a climate roadmap, and will need to hold on to green investments and capabilities throughout COVID budget cuts.
Companies will need to work proactively with regulators to establish new standards. Instead of being passengers in the transformation of their industry, they could turn regulation into an opportunity to gain a competitive edge.