We’re living at a critical moment in the fight against climate change.
According to some estimates, emissions need to fall by 7.6% each year over the next decade to limit global warming to 1.5C. This is a huge undertaking, and every industry needs to play its part.
The aviation sector has come under scrutiny due to being a large contributor to global emissions.
In 2019, the global aviation industry was responsible for 12% of all transport-related CO2 emissions that year, over 900 million tonnes of carbon dioxide.
Realising things had to change, the aviation industry has made significant progress in fuel and CO2 efficiency, halving the amount of fuel used per flight compared to 1990. This has been achieved through technological advancement, as well as improvements in operations and infrastructure.
Each new generation of aircraft is roughly 15% more fuel-efficient, and manufacturers invest billions per year in research into greater efficiency.
The UK aviation industry has set decarbonisation targets of at least 15% by 2030, and 40% by 2040, which has reaffirmed its commitment to net-zero by 2050, a crucial target year for the entire industry.
But how will this be achieved?
One of the easiest ways for the aviation industry to tackle its carbon footprint is by using a more sustainable fuel than traditional jet fuel. Luckily, a reliable fuel alternative has been in use for some time: Sustainable Aviation Fuel, or SAF. While it doesn’t have the most imaginative name, it works and is growing in popularity.
Part of what makes this fuel so powerful in the fight against emissions is that it doesn’t require additional equipment or infrastructure investment, as it can be mixed with existing fuel.
This fuel isn’t just cleaner than traditional fuel, it can be made from the by-products of other industries, so it helps recycle materials that might otherwise go to waste or cause harm. Sustainable Aviation Fuel also reduces the number of harmful particulates that are produced from air travel, such as SOx and NOx emissions.
If used alone, SAF can reduce emissions by up to 80%. In its pure form, however, it is not yet able to meet the standards set by the aviation industry, so it’s blended with conventional jet fuel, helping to limit the carbon footprint of air travel.
Although the use of SAF is increasing in the aviation industry and is expected to become much more common in the future, it represents less than 1% of the types of aviation fuel currently in use by the industry. This is partially due to the cost: it is around four times more expensive than traditional fuel. It is also due to availability. SAF has to be manufactured, and while it is readily available in some locations, it has to be shipped to others.
This presents a problem since the environmental benefit of a “green product” such as SAF is diminished if it has to be transported long distances by truck before it can be used. Consuming SAF close to where it is produced is crucial for the aviation industry to reduce its carbon footprint.
That’s where “book-and-claim” comes in. This is an emerging practice in the aviation field, where SAF is purchased by one customer and used by another, helping to limit the environmental impact.
Fuel is only one part of the equation, the way the planes are built, flown, and maintained is another.
New fleets are being made lighter, and more efficient. Even the way air traffic control operates is changing. Landing using a continuous descent instead of the more traditional method saves around 150kg of carbon dioxide per flight.
Even the wingtip devices can have an impact on the overall fuel efficiency of the plane, so every component, every technique, everything from the seats we sit into the cutlery we use is being optimised for sustainability.
Aviation businesses have been looking at cutting their emissions for decades, but this comes at a massive cost to their bottom line. Government policies, incentives, and subsidies help ease the financial impact, making it easier for progress to be made faster than would be possible if the industry was working alone.
As such, the industry is asking for more support from governments around the world to help shoulder the cost of increased sustainability.
One such initiative is the international Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), which has helped the industry make great leaps towards carbon neutrality.
When it comes to sustainability projects like electric cars and solar power, there have been landmark projects showing the effectiveness of government policies and subsidies in speeding up sustainable action, as well as aiding with widespread adoption.
More needs to be done on a national level to support airlines around the world, so we’ll likely see more initiatives as we get closer to 2050 and governments begin to see the tangible benefits of supporting the aviation industry become more sustainable.