The journey to net zero aviation is getting shorter thanks to a range of innovations aimed at reducing air travel carbon emissions. Major investment is going into new technologies and practical approaches to reduce the environmental impact of air travel with airlines, scientists, engineers and Formula One teams driving developments in sustainable fuel and low carbon technology.
Sustainable aviation was on the royal agenda as King Charles, in his first engagement as King, launched a new £58 million net-zero aviation lab at the University of Cambridge, the facility set to become one of the world’s leading innovation hubs for net zero and clean energy.
The new Whittle Laboratory will host the leading clean energy technology companies such as Siemens Energy, Rolls-Royce, and Boeing to develop cutting-edge aviation technologies to reach net zero.
CO2 emissions from commercial aircraft are on course to triple by 2050 according to the International Aviation Transport Association (IATA) whose recent figures show that demand is expected to reach 94 per cent of 2019 levels in 2023 and will increase to 103 per cent in 2024 and 111 per cent in 2025.
The aviation sector has a vital role to play in reducing its environmental impact. All 260 members of the IATA have committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions with the Fly Net Zero resolution agreed by all member airlines, committing them to achieve net-zero carbon emissions in their operations by 2050.
Sustainable aviation fuel
Etihad Airways, like many across the aviation industry, has invested in the development of sustainable airline fuel and has continuously increased its use since becoming a founding member of the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium in 2011.
Formula One is investing heavily in bio and other non-carbon based fuels for use at Grand Prix events and for its global travel requirements. “Mercedes was the first global sports team to invest in sustainable aviation fuel to reduce our Scope 3 aviation carbon footprint, which will almost halve the air travel footprint of our race team personnel,” says Alice Ashpitel, sustainability and environment manager at Mercedes Benz Motorsport.
“Our commitment to sustainable fuel is a multi-million euro investment over many years to help us go racing more sustainably. Air transport is one of the biggest challenges a team faces in moving people around the world.”
Technology and regulation
Technological advances in aviation have increased efficiency and go some way to reducing engine emissions. The Boeing Dreamliner, the most efficient aircraft in the world, is 22 per cent more fuel-efficient than an Airbus A330, the previous generation of aircraft, and Etihad has partnered with SATAVIA, a UK-based aerospace company, to develop a revolutionary contrail prevention technology that aims to reduce the carbon impact of every flight by up to 60 per cent.
The aviation industry’s action to reduce its environmental impact is being driven by global regulation and key frameworks that aim to enable companies to reduce their emissions footprint and prevent the worst effects of climate change.
The Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi) has published a technical report detailing an interim pathway for aviation companies to set 1.5°C-aligned targets. This pathway is designed to harmonise existing sector guidance with the SBTi’s current criteria. It allows aviation companies to meet the minimum ambition levels required by the criteria, and provides a short-term, accessible option for them to set science-based net-zero targets.
The SBTi’s interim 1.5°C aviation pathway builds on this scenario to account for projected demand and technology changes, like investments in net-zero carbon aircraft and fuels, that are sufficient to align the sector with net-zero by 2050.
The technical report, also released today, describes the interim pathway and clarifies the requirements for setting a base year outside the timeframe of the COVID-19 pandemic during the anomalous emissions fluctuations across the entire sector.
The SBTi’s aviation team also plans to launch a formal sector update project for the existing target setting aviation guidance. The sector guidance will be updated in accordance with our comprehensive and transparent process, which includes technical development, stakeholder and public engagement, as well as the review of an Expert Advisory Group (EAG). If the interim 1.5°C pathway is superseded by an updated pathway released alongside the updated sector guidance, approved targets using the interim 1.5°C scenario before the release of the updated 1.5°C pathway will remain valid.
Until the guidance is updated, the interim pathway for the aviation sector marks an important milestone in the transformation of the airline industry to align with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement. The SBTi encourages companies from across the sector to use the interim pathway and align their emissions with what science says is needed to limit the impact of climate breakdown.
With headline-grabbing support from the likes of King Charles and Formula One the aviation industry is in a powerful position to promote eco-friendly innovation.
“We’re using new technologies fuels and strategies to demonstrate what works and what doesn’t work and to highlight the successes and challenges with transparency,” says Ashpitel. “Whether it’s motor-racing, aviation or music concerts we all need to learn how to reduce carbon emissions. Mercedes Benz Motorsport and Formula One have an opportunity to share knowledge and skills and to keep improving our sustainability efforts.”