Aviation is an essential piece of social welfare. The health crisis has shown, once again, that society wants to continue moving to have face-to-face encounters with other people and get to know other cultures up close, as well as the importance of transporting goods by air. And it is these meetings that make societies more supportive, more tolerant and more inclusive. We therefore know that aviation will continue to grow steadily and it is our duty to do so sustainably.
Until the COVID-19 crisis, air traffic continued to double every 15 years. Despite this exponential growth, aviation as a whole only accounts for between 2 and 3% of the greenhouse gas emissions produced by human beings, largely thanks to the improvement in aircraft efficiency, which in the last decade it has increased by 2.1% per year, even exceeding the 1% target set by the sector itself through the Air Transport Action Group.
Looking back, we notice that in the last 60 years CO2 emissions have been reduced by 80%, noise emissions by 75%, and nitrogen oxide emissions by 90%. We have a more concrete example with the Airbus A320neo, which entered service in 2016, with 25% less CO2 emissions. The replacement of older, more polluting fleets with this model has contributed to saving 15 million tons of CO2.
In order to decarbonise the aviation sector, however, we cannot focus only on replacing fleets and improving efficiency, we must also make a commitment to energy vectors that allow us to achieve the ambitious objective set by the aviation sector: achieving zero emissions net by 2050.
Sustainable Aviation Fuels or SAFs are a promising solution to decarbonize aviation, as their use requires only limited modifications to infrastructure and equipment, and allows up to 80% reduction in CO2.
Airbus aircraft, in fact, can already fly with 50% SAF, and work is being done so that in the next decade they can fly with 100%.
However, today the production of this type of fuel is minimal, with 0.1% of consumption compared to the use of kerosene for aircraft, and prices are more than double that of conventional fuel. This is precisely the main challenge of the SAF: to ensure its widespread use at a price and in sufficient quantity to make it competitive.
The first steps, somewhat timid, are already being taken. The European Commission, for example, proposed within the framework of the ‘Fit for 55’ initiative a ReFuelEU aviation regulation that requires mixing minimum volumes of SAF in the fuel, going from 2% in 2025 to 5% in 2030 and 63 % in 2050.
For its part, in the United States, the ‘Grand Sustainable Aviation Fuel Challenge’ announced by President Biden’s Administration aims to increase SAF production to 11 billion liters per year by 2030 and meet all of the fuel demand aviation of the country in 2050.
These goals serve as a guarantee to producers of sustainable fuel, but it is necessary to ensure that existing and future SAF plants have the capacity and know-how to meet the growing demand. To do this, it is necessary to invest in infrastructure and qualified personnel to make it possible, in addition to breaking down regulatory barriers.
In the longer term, work is underway to achieve by 2035 the first passenger aircraft to produce zero emissions into the environment. Hydrogen, if it is generated from renewable energy through electrolysis, does not produce CO2 emissions either during the operation of the aircraft or practically during the production of the energy it consumes.
In order to achieve the goal of zero emissions, in addition to the investment in R&D that will pave the way for future technologies, it will be necessary to create supply and demand for the different means of heavy and light transport in order to achieve an economy of scale, infrastructure transformations airport and large amounts of renewable energy to produce green hydrogen.
This ambition cannot be achieved individually: it must be a joint effort between regulators and the entire industry, including airlines, energy producers and infrastructure providers.
These challenges are not easy, but we are aware of our responsibility and the driving role we must play in the development of sustainable aircraft for the future.
Today we are paving the way for a future that we can be proud of and leave as a legacy to future generations. Sustainable aviation for a safe and united world is possible.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism