Sustainable Aviation Is the Future

The high temperatures that have been recorded in recent years and the image of the melting glaciers in Greenland have raised alarms about what humanity is doing to prevent global warming. For several years, the role aviation plays in carbon dioxide emissions has been questioned. But what is the current state of aviation?

On April 15th, a panel organized by Flight Global was held in which the central topic of conversation was sustainability, sustainable aviation fuels and the challenges that airlines face in trying to contribute to the reduction of CO2 emissions. The invited experts were: Remona van der Zon, KLM Sustainability & Reporting Manager; Lauren Riley, United Airlines Managing Director for Global Environmental Affairs and Sustainability; Michael Winter, Pratt & Whitney Senior Fellow for Advanced Technology; Adam Morton, Chair of UK Sustainable Aviation; and Andreea Moyes, BP Global Aviation Sustainability Director.

It is a reality that both the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the International Air Transport Association (IATA) recognize that aviation is responsible for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions. This is why, as Michael Winter mentioned, technological development is crucial for the industry to meet carbon objectives. According to Morton it is evident that airlines are implementing a decarbonisation strategy as part of the goal established by IATA to remove 50% of their CO2 emissions by 2050. But to achieve this goal, strategies must be based on three pillars which Lauren Riley described as:

  1. Carbon capture and sequestration: Removing emissions from current and past flights.
  2. Innovation: New and more fuel-efficient aircraft.
  3. Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF): biofuels and less polluting aviation fuels.

The latter being the option that has had the most investment, through biofuels, since it brings with it the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by 80% for current aircraft flying today. Airline giants such as United, Delta, KLM, and British Airways – among others – have seen it as a key area of ​​opportunity to meet environmental objectives. Although, as Remona van der Zon mentioned, KLM so far operate approximately 1% of flights with SAF – which, even if a tiny proportion, is still the beginning of a long and positive journey. But the question that arises is whether SAFs and biofuels are the only alternative? KLM shows us that there are other promising projects like the one they carried out with Shell for the development of synthetic fuels. The objective is that in the future most of their operations will be using some of these fuels.

But are airlines alone responsible for this? It is true that carriers are making a great effort but we cannot forget the important role that fuel companies play. In a general consensus the large fuel companies say they are committed to this carbon reduction mission. But the question that arises is why have they not made the use of these new innovative fuels more accessible across different airports? As a matter of fact, the sector has carried out research and projects for a long time but as Andreea Moyes answered:

Only in the most recent 2 years, we have seen significant action that is likely to lead to the availability (of SAF).

Andreea Moyes, Aviation Global Sustainability Director, BP.

According to Moyes, Air BP have made these fuels accessible in 20 airports, but it is crucial that these efforts are accompanied by a certainty of demand (somewhat difficult currently) to be able to justify the higher operating costs of producing SAF. This demand is trending and growing exponentially, and it is very likely that in the coming years we will see greater accessibility.

In general, experts believe that we are still on track, and there are positive expectations for aviation to meet these objectives thanks to projects such as: the “Destination 2050” agenda or technological developments. But they emphasize that the industry should no longer focus solely on R&D, but also on Commercial Development to achieve their green goals. In the end, and following Remona’s words, the effort must be “As a whole industry” for this to evolve positively.

Finally, other questions arise, such as how environmentally efficient are airlines today? How true is it that these strategies can be applied globally? We will be able to address these questions in a future article where I will use Data Envelopment Analysis methods to try to answer them. For now, the purpose of this article is to emphasize the points discussed by the panel, to show that airlines are increasingly engaging in this fight, but above all to invite readers to debate the issue. Currently the solutions proposed by many NGO’s is “let’s stop flying” – but this industry is crucial and for complex problems there are no simple solutions. That is why I invite you to reflect and investigate ways to contribute and ensure that aviation can be an ally and not an enemy in this fight against carbon that is so important for mankind.

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I am a Mexican MSc Business Analytics student at the University of Edinburgh. Aviation is a unique and a professional industry which connects the world together through a distinctive experience. This is why I share a strong passion for this industry.

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