Understanding Sustainable Aviation in 40 Charts (Plus, Case Studies!)
Aviation is booming again after the pandemic. Passenger numbers will soon surpass pre-pandemic levels this year; airlines are experiencing a new wave of profitability; and airports are once again chockfull of passengers.
The Need for Sustainable Aviation
With major players like IndiGo ordering 500 aircraft from Airbus, Ryanair securing 300 from Boeing, and Turkish Airlines negotiating deals for up to 345 with Airbus, the sector's resurgence is palpable. However, this resurgence brings to the forefront the pressing need for decarbonisation within the industry.
As these newly ordered aircraft are expected to remain operational until after 2050—the target year by which the aviation industry has committed to achieving net-zero emissions—the sector faces a monumental challenge.
With societal shifts towards greater environmental consciousness, the pressure on aviation to innovate and adapt has never been more intense. Currently accounting for about 2.5% of global carbon emissions, projections suggest this could escalate to over 20% if decisive action is not taken.
This stark reality presents not just a formidable challenge but an existential one, underscoring the essential need for the aviation industry to embark on an aggressive path toward decarbonisation to secure its future in a world increasingly intolerant of carbon-intensive activities.
The State of Sustainable Aviation Technologies 2024
The journey towards sustainable aviation will be paved with innovative yet challenging technologies, each at different stages of development and adoption.
Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), with their diverse production pathways, stand out as the most immediate solution for decarbonising the aviation sector.
Nevertheless, recognising the urgent need for decarbonisation, many airlines are actively investing in SAF offtakes to secure whatever supplies are available, demonstrating a commitment to sustainability despite the obstacles.
On the frontier of aviation technology, electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft represent the next wave of innovation, though both are still in the early stages of development.
Electric planes, limited by the current capabilities of battery technology, are primarily suited for short distances and small passenger loads, posing significant challenges for widespread adoption.
Hydrogen, on the other hand, holds promise for longer flights, yet its commercial viability remains unproven, with expectations that such aircraft won't enter service until the mid-2030s.
These technologies underscore the complexities of transitioning to a sustainable aviation industry, highlighting the need for continued research, investment, and development to overcome the barriers to a cleaner flying future.
Airline Net Zero Pathways
Airline pathways to net zero by 2050 share common strategies, primarily focusing on SAF and banking on future technological advancements.
According to Transport and Environment (T&E), 92% of aviation's carbon emissions could be reduced through clean technologies like hydrogen, hybrid-electric propulsion, and SAFs, combined with carbon pricing and improved air traffic management. The remaining emissions would be tackled using carbon removal technologies.
Commenting on the "Destination 2050 – A Route to Net Zero European Aviation" T&E highlighted, for example, the necessity for reforms in the EU’s carbon market, including tightening the emissions cap and eliminating free pollution permits. It also critiqued global offsetting schemes as insufficient for meaningful emission reductions.
However, T&E cautions that the strategy's reliance on the timely deployment of aircraft technology, particularly for short-haul flights, is overly optimistic. The plan lacks detailed considerations for the costs associated with medium and long-haul flights, urging the industry to provide clear cost projections before seeking public funding for these technologies.
Despite the uncertainties surrounding the aviation industry's path to net zero, including the when, how, and feasibility, there are compelling reasons for optimism.
The transition towards aviation decarbonisation entails substantial costs and investments across the board.
For aircraft manufacturers, this means pouring resources into the research and development of planes with not only advanced traditional designs but also exploring unconventional airframes and propulsion systems.
The shift towards SAF and the potential for hydrogen and electric-powered aircraft necessitates sweeping changes in airport infrastructure, calling for substantial public and private financial backing.
The current investment in fossil fuels, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA), significantly overshadows the levels deemed necessary for a net zero scenario by 2050, especially in the case of coal.
However, the bright spot in this landscape is the remarkable growth in investments towards renewable energy sources. The IEA's World Energy Investment report highlights an expected daily investment in solar energy exceeding $1 billion in 2023, with solar investments on track to surpass those in oil production for the first time.
This pivot is further underscored by predictions from Oxford University researchers, who estimate that a swift shift to green energy, including wind and solar, could yield savings of $5 to $15 trillion over inaction.
Additionally, the green technology and sustainability market, valued at USD 13.76 billion in 2022, is anticipated to surge to USD 61.92 billion by 2030. These developments paint a hopeful picture of the energy transition's momentum, underscoring a collective move towards sustainable solutions that could significantly benefit the aviation sector's net zero ambitions.
Case Studies & Technological Pathways
The road to decarbonising aviation may be tough but innovators in the industry are slugging it out to move mountains for a better planet, pioneering efforts for a more sustainable future.
Highlighted in our new book "Sustainability in the Air," co-authored by SimpliFlying CEO Shashank Nigam and Head of Sustainability Dirk Singer, are the airlines and technology companies at the forefront of this transformation.
Further exploration and insights into these pioneering efforts are shared through our podcast, also titled "Sustainability in the Air." Our podcast has released close to 70 episodes, featuring discussions with major airlines like United and Delta, innovative fuel companies like Air Company and World Energy, and cutting-edge electric aircraft startups like Joby and Archer.
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