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Navigating Decarbonization in Aviation: Path to Net-Zero Emissions

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) embarked on a transformative journey of “Decarbonization in Aviation,” aiming to achieve net-zero emissions in the global aviation sector by 2050. This ambition underscores the broader commitments of the aviation industry and different nations, while also acknowledging the considerable hurdles faced by the sector, one of the most difficult to decarbonize, necessitating a range of solutions including battery-electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft.

Expected progress in technology, like Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs), predicted to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 46%-65%, provides a clear path forward. Yet, harnessing this potential will require proactive marketing, suitable incentives, and regulations.

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The Role of SAFs

A report by the Air Transport Action Group, Waypoint 2050, reveals that 96% of aviation emissions come from aircraft with over 100 seats, 66% of which are from successful single-aisle aircraft dominating the market. The remaining 4% originates from aircraft with up to 100 seats, typically used for regional routes. Therefore, the near-term focus on SAFs, which present a practical solution using existing aircraft and airport infrastructure, is crucial to decarbonize these emissions.

However, increasing the production and supply of SAFs poses a significant hurdle. The Making Net-Zero Aviation Possible report states that achieving the demand would necessitate 300 SAF production plants by 2030 and up to 3,400 by 2050. This necessity presents a major challenge regarding feedstock availability, especially given the limited biomass resources.

To reach the 2050 targets, rapid deployment of power-to-liquid plants after 2030 will likely be required to address the feedstock limitation of bio-based routes. Industry will play an integral role in meeting this challenge, but it is apparent that government targets, frameworks, and policies will be required to encourage the widespread use of SAF fuels in the aviation industry.

Electrification and Hydrogen in Decarbonization in Aviation

While initial projections suggest the significance of electrification in emission reductions is around 2%, this technology is crucial for supporting the decarbonization roadmap. Notably, battery-electric aircraft provide the benefit of eliminating in-flight emissions.

In recent years, numerous concepts for electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles have surfaced. However, they are not meant to fully replace existing commercial, regional routes, which usually operate on less than 800-kilometre distances. The Forum report, Target True Zero: Unlocking Sustainable Battery and Hydrogen-Powered Flight, predicts that by 2035, lithium-ion battery-electric aircraft will have a maximum operating range of around 400 kilometres, increasing to 600 kilometres by 2050.

If the evolution of battery-electric aircraft continues, electrification could play a significant role within a global decarbonization framework. Electric motors coupled with other technologies, such as electric propulsion with SAFs or hydrogen, can considerably extend the aircraft’s range.

Alejandro de Quero Cordero, Sustainability Lead, Aerospace and Drones, emphasized, “Governments must set clear goals and milestones for battery-electric and hydrogen propulsion… to draw investors and stimulate industry action.”

Emerging technology in hybrid aircraft presents a potential alternative to new turboprop designs, contributing significantly to emission reduction compared to smaller jets. Furthermore, hybrid aircraft can aid in accelerating safety and security certification processes for electric motors and hydrogen concepts.

Implementing battery-electric will require a combination of technical efforts, including ensuring renewable charging sources, optimizing battery life cycles, and improving energy density. Increasing energy density can significantly enhance the range and efficiency of battery-electric aircraft, further endorsing their feasibility as a sustainable aviation solution.

Simultaneously, another key technology, hydrogen, accounts for about 26% of emission reductions. This indicates the need to boost the production capacity of green hydrogen by 2035.

A steady supply of green hydrogen is vital, as blue hydrogen may not yield significant climate improvements compared to conventional jet fuel. Additionally, developments in fuel cell technology and lighter storage tanks are critical for optimizing the efficiency and range of a hydrogen-powered aircraft.

Research should also concentrate on the potential impact of contrails formed by hydrogen-fuelled aircraft containing increased water vapour. By prioritizing these aspects, the aviation industry can unlock the full potential of hydrogen technology and expedite the transition towards a sustainable and decarbonized future.

Regulatory Support for Decarbonization in Aviation

The technical questions and roadmaps need regulatory support. The World Economic Forum and the Aviation Environment Federation have published a new report, Target True Zero: Government Policy Toolkit to Accelerate Uptake of Electric and Hydrogen Aircraft.

The toolkit aims to equip governments with opportunities and options to develop approaches towards accelerating the development of zero-emission aircraft technologies as part of an overall decarbonization plan for the sector.

Regulators crafting a net-zero aviation strategy will require a comprehensive understanding of market segments, aircraft sizes, airport infrastructure, and the potential for renewable electricity or hydrogen supply. This understanding may differ across countries but governments must set clear goals and milestones for battery-electric and hydrogen propulsion based on these insights to attract investors and drive industry action.

Building stakeholder partnerships will help to assist this objective by identifying priority actions, while alignment on aviation strategies with economy-wide plans for hydrogen and renewable energy development is also essential for progress.

Simultaneously, governments must better understand how to create an enabling environment, supporting International Civil Aviation Organization initiatives while facilitating the development and deployment of alternative propulsion aircraft through research, infrastructure support, and regulatory updates. Harmonizing certification approaches is potentially the most important step for accelerating progress.

The global aviation industry contributes just under 3% of global carbon emissions and is projected to emit more as travel demand rises in emerging economies. There’s no single solution to decarbonize the sector. Achieving net-zero will require a broad focus that maximizes the potential of technological advancements, financial incentives, and partnerships. This concerted effort will put the sector on track with its decarbonization roadmap.

Feel free to contact the Energy Transition Centre today with questions. 

·  Julius Moerder, Head of Energy Transition Centre

·  Oneyka Ojogbo, Head of Energy Transition Centre, Nigeria & West Africa

·  Leon van Der Merwe, Head of Energy Transition Centre, South Africa

Author: Memoona Tawfiq