As an industry that accounts for 2% of all global carbon emissions – and 12% of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by the transport sector – the aviation industry is coming under pressure to clean up its act.
But with demand for flights increasing – numbers are expected to double over the next 20 years – reducing environmental impact while accommodating many more passengers is understandably challenging.
At last week’s Paris Air Show, there was a lot of focus on moving to hybrid and electric engines for short-haul (below 1000 miles) travel, which accounts for 45% of all flights.
A recent report by the investment bank UBS predicts industry demand for hybrid planes, which use a mixture of fossil fuel and electric power, will reach around 550 a year between 2028 and 2040.
Electric planes by 2030
More than 100 electric aircraft projects are believed to be currently underway globally, with the first electric passenger plane expected to be operational before 2030.
Certainly, easyJet says it plans to incorporate electric aircraft into its fleet by 2027.
In a bid to incentivise airlines, Heathrow – which is set to expand to become the world’s largest airport in terms of passenger capacity – is offering to waive a year’s landing charges to the world’s first electric passenger plane to land there.
Meanwhile, over in Scandinavia, Norway and Sweden are working towards having all short-haul flights electrically powered by 2040.
Rethinking the status quo
In the shorter term, rethinking the way things currently operate is seen as key to reducing emissions.
For example, using lighter materials that reduce plane weight and tweaking existing engines to enhance performance.
Already, the new Airbus A350-1000 planes generate 30% less emissions than traditional 747-400 aircraft.
Switching to alternative fuels that are less carbon-intensive than kerosene is also on the agenda.
Developing low-carbon fuels
Around 185,00 commercial flights have already incorporated low-carbon fuels.
These include a London to Florida Virgin Atlantic flight, which tested a low-carbon jet fuel made from recycled waste gases. And Singapore Airlines has experimented by incorporating used cooking oil into its fuel mix.
More advanced biofuels (which are produced without deforestation) and electrofuels are also being developed.
The latter includes synthetic kerosene, which is produced from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere using energy from renewable sources.
Getting economic and regulatory support to bring these sustainable alternative fuels (SAFs) into commercial production is now a primary focus.
Certainly, if the industry is to adopt the ‘75% reduction in carbon emissions by 2050’ target recommended by the Advisory Council for Aeronautics Research in Europe, big changes need to occur.
And a combination of low-carbon fuels and electric power currently appears to be the most promising direction to achieve this…