The aviation sector was one of the hardest hit during 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. Compared to 2019, the number of travelers was down by as much as three quarters, a fact that translated into a significant reduction in carbon emissions. However, as the world's economies have revived, so has the demand for travel, leading to fears that the industry will return to its previous levels of emissions.
Clearly, this represents lousy news for our planet. Although CO2 emissions are likely to triple by 2050, if the Paris Agreement plans are met and we limit global warming to 1.5°C, net carbon emissions are likely to have reached zero by that year.
Recently, leading representatives of the aviation industry around the world embraced the climate challenge of net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Leaders from airlines, airports, aircraft manufacturers and air traffic management organizations, among others, signed a declaration committing to work together with governments and other industry members to facilitate energy innovation across the aviation sector.
What does this declaration consist of, and is it really possible to achieve this goal? We tell you about it below.
A global carbon reduction commitment
The representatives who signed the declaration recognize that this is an ambitious goal, which will not only require joint work among all industry members and partners, but will depend on government and energy sector action.
The document, entitled "Waypoint 2050", details some crucial elements to achieve the decarbonization of aviation:
Drive the transition to the use of sustainable fuels, such as green hydrogen.
Promote research, development and deployment of new propulsion systems, including electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft.
Optimize the sector's infrastructure, including increasing the efficiency of operations at airports and similar air navigation services.
Investing resources in carbon offsets and removals to address residual emissions.
In parallel to this proposal, the Mission Possible Partnership (MPP), a coalition of hundreds of transportation and industrial companies, announced its decarbonization plans for the steel and aviation industry. The strategy includes ending the use of fossil fuels for aircraft by 2050, and details its strategy for adopting new sustainable aviation fuels, such as electric batteries and the aforementioned green hydrogen.
The group believes that, in the short term, sustainable aviation fuels represent the only way to reduce emissions from the sector, while hydrogen could be widely adopted from 2030 and, by 2050, hydrogen could cover a quarter of fuel demand for the aviation sector.
The difficulties of decarbonizing the aviation industry.
Air transport requires an overwhelming amount of energy, and fossil fuels remain the only option for aircraft. Although fleet renewal can significantly impact emissions, these savings are insufficient to cover the increase in the number of flights.
Prior to the advent of COVID-19, the efficiency of the aviation industry was increasing by about 3 percent each year, but passenger demand was growing by 5 percent annually. With the advent of sustainable fuels, emissions figures are expected to fall. However, during 2018, these fuels accounted for less than 0.1 percent of consumption across the sector.
Biofuels have also emerged as an alternative, as they are obtained from palm, corn or soybean crops. However, environmental groups have spoken out against these products because they can be in high demand and promote deforestation, while there is a proposal within the European Union (EU) that rejects their use altogether and opts for more advanced biofuels, which can be made from forestry and agricultural waste.
Are airplanes warming the planet?
Although the aviation industry accounts for about 2.5% of global carbon emissions, its influence on global warming is much greater, due to the particles and substances emitted by aircraft when they are in flight.
Beyond CO2, aircraft also emit other negative substances, such as nitrogen dioxides. These substances are rarely mentioned in industry climate agreements, but their impact on nature in the future could be three times greater than that of CO2.
A promising condition of these other substances is that their effect varies according to weather conditions and the time of travel. For example, night flights may be more problematic, because condensation trails generate more warming at night. In the short term, this issue is unlikely to be resolved. However, the EU is committing resources to further research into the impact of these substances.
When it comes to new technologies to optimize air traffic and flight management processes, some experts believe that these will not be fast enough to reduce emissions. In fact, the new technologies to be introduced in the sector must reduce the number of travelers. Some activists believe that creating a new travel tax is a fair option to limit emissions, but that would also limit travel to those willing and able to pay the tax.
In any case, there are still many issues to be discussed regarding the future plans of industry leaders, and the consolidation of their proposals depends on the coordinated work between all industry players and governments around the world.
Join the fight!
EDIE (2021). “Steel and aviation sectors plot pathway to net-zero by 2050”. 14 de octubre de 2021. Link: https://www.edie.net/news/6/Steel-and-aviation-sectors-plot-pathway-to-net-zero-by-2050/
AVIATION BENEFITS BEYOND BORDERS (2021). “Waypoint 2050”. Link: https://aviationbenefits.org/environmental-efficiency/climate-action/waypoint-2050/
Transport & Environment (2021). “Aviation industry’s net zero plan over-reliant on future technologies”. 25 de febrero de 2021. Link: https://www.transportenvironment.org/discover/aviation-industrys-net-zero-plan-over-reliant-future-technologies/