*Updated September 2022
Air transport is often regarded as the most polluting type of transportation, and some raw numbers seem to support this. For instance, in terms of CO2 equivalent per passenger, per kilometer, flights take the cake - while an international rail is only responsible for 6 grams of CO2 per passenger kilometer, flights are guilty of 255 grams per passenger. The runner-ups are petrol cars, accounting for 192 grams per passenger. A pretty close second, right? However, this number falls to 96 grams if the car carries two passengers, 64 if it’s three… you get the idea.
However, there are also interesting statistics that challenge the notion that planes are the main bad guy when it comes to human-generated carbon footprint from transport.
To start with, the entire transport sector accounts for 21% of our total carbon emissions. Road transport is responsible for 15% of the global carbon footprint while airplanes are responsible for about 2.5%, which is significantly less. Does it mean that the aviation industry is off the hook? Definitely not. It just means that we need to work on decarbonization in all transportation sectors, as well as develop more efficient aviation technology to help offset the carbon footprint.
Why all the fuss over decarbonizing aviation?
One of the reasons air travel is important in decarbonization attempts is because of how much a single long-haul flight can pollute. For instance, a New York-Paris flight emits approximately 1 ton of CO2, about as much as the personal carbon budget should be to fight climate change. If someone were to diligently keep score, they’d need to stay in Paris, travel by bicycles and trains, recycle, compost, reuse just about everything, avoid buying new stuff, and probably engage in some permaculture for the rest of the year.
Luckily, aviation technology is ready to make the future of air travel better for our environment. Let’s see how.
What is decarbonization?
First things first - what is decarbonization? And how could future airplanes and aviation technology contribute to it? Decarbonization is the process of decreasing human-generated CO2 emissions to the point where we can become carbon-neutral and reduce the effects of climate change. Its final objective is to completely eliminate human-generated carbon emissions. The current goal is to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, in accordance with the Paris Agreement, and various methods have been proposed by the European Green Deal to make this happen by 2050.
However, decarbonization efforts up until now are proving to be far from enough. According to the most recent reports prepared by the Climate Action Tracker in May of 2021, if we keep up with current practices, not only will we not reach the goal of 1.5 degrees Celsius, but are likely to contribute to a temperature increase of 3.9 degrees Celsius.
This would be detrimental to all life on this planet - for starters, even in a 3-degree increase scenario, numerous species would go extinct and parts of largely populated cities like Miami, Osaka, Rio de Janeiro, and Shanghai would end up underwater. So, how does new aviation technology play into decarbonization? The aviation industry has set goals for itself to decrease carbon emissions by 2050, halving them from what they were in 2005. But is this enough?
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For transport, clean energy is key. The way to sustainable air travel would be environmentally friendly jet fuel such as SAF (sustainable aviation fuels), new aviation technology featuring highly efficient engines, and championing fuel and operational efficiency. Decarbonization technology, overall, is instrumental in all transport sectors. And finally, to get any of this, we need forward-thinking stakeholders ready to support innovation, because it’s the only way out.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at how new aviation technology can play a key role in decarbonization and how we can help to make this happen.
Decarbonization and aviation technology for sustainable air travel
The principal focus of decarbonization in aviation technology is using alternative fuels rather than carbon, but it also includes optimizing operational efficiency and jet fuel performance. The main problem here is that carriers use only about 50% of their full potential.
This is due to inefficient flying and take-off practices, the limits of air traffic control and management, lack of automated navigation services, even the weight of the materials used in the construction of aircraft, etc. So, how can we do things better and what are some alternatives?
Increasing engine and operational efficiency
With that 2050 decarbonization target in mind, the aviation technology industry is already making some changes, although, as we’ve found, we’ll need a lot more. Boeing, for instance, is using additive manufacturing, i.e. 3D printing, to construct carriers without using as many raw materials, so each new Boeing carrier is around 15%-25% more efficient than previous models.
Other attempts to partially offset flight emissions are designing more fuel-efficient jet engines, coming up with more aerodynamic aircraft designs, and using advanced coatings, such as a ceramic coating, which can be sprayed on aircraft parts like turbine blades to improve operational efficiency but also make the carrier more durable.
Historically, aircraft manufacturers have mainly tried to boost fuel efficiency by reducing the weight of the plane and focusing on aerodynamics in new designs. Today, such attempts continue as innovations allow designers to be even more creative when it comes to using lightweight materials because even something that seems insignificant like a seat cover can make a difference.
Disruptive propulsion technologies for future airplanes
....but first, a disclaimer on electricity
A lot of the time, electricity is suggested as one of the principal solutions for decarbonization. But there’s one thing that often gets left out when we talk about replacing fuel for electricity: how is that electricity sourced? Electricity can help with decarbonization only if it comes from sustainable sources. If the electricity comes from the burning of fossil fuels, we’ve just shifted the region that gets polluted.
Carbon dioxide won’t be emitted from the vehicle, it will be emitted from the energy plant. In the US, for instance, 60% of energy comes from fossil fuels, so it’s not just about charging car batteries and in our case, plane batteries - it’s about having the right source, too.
So, when we’re talking about sustainable air travel and the use of electricity in some of its processes, like propulsion, it’s important to note that this is only eco-friendly if the electricity comes from renewable and sustainable sources, such as wind turbines, solar panels, hydropower, and biomass.
Electric and hybrid propulsion
Did you know that Rolls-Royce, in collaboration with startup Electroflight, has launched an all-electric aircraft named ‘Spirit of Innovation’? The automotive industry is expanding its operations to aircraft, and the fast growth of electric propulsion technology for hybrid or completely electric carriers is a testament to that.
This technology is still young, however, as the lithium batteries used are much heavier and less powerful than regular fuel. Needless to say, we need more great collaborations between investors and startups to make the technology efficient and economical.
Hydrogen propulsion is a promising technology for air travel when it comes to medium and long-haul destinations. The compound could be utilized in the form of a hydrogen fuel cell, meaning it would be a source of electricity in a hybrid or fully electric system.
The second option is to power modified gas turbine jet engines with hydrogen combustion to increase thrust. In fact, Airbus has placed hydrogen propulsion as a cornerstone in their design of future airplanes that are meant to be zero-emission and ready to use by 2035.
There are, of course, kinks that need to be worked out to utilize hydrogen’s potential in aviation decarbonization technology. Some of these challenges are redesigning aircraft to facilitate hydrogen propulsion and addressing the sheer weight of hydrogen fuel cell batteries. As with any other type of innovation, figuring out production and manufacturing would be costly, but it’s a necessary step towards the decarbonized future of air travel.
Sustainable aviation fuels or SAFs
Sustainable aviation fuels or SAFs are various kinds of environmentally friendly jet fuel that can be made from biosources like feedstock or through synthetic processes, like fuel made from hydrogen and carbon dioxide.
SAFs are a key component in the plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050. According to McKinsey, this goal is possible - but scaling up SAFs is an absolute must.
Bio-based SAFs are fuels made from feedstocks that function similarly to fossil fuels. It’s important that this feedstock is sustainable and thus sourced from municipal and household waste, cooking oil, plants (algae and jatropha are being considered), waste gases, agricultural residues, etc. This means that first, it’s important not to use sources that could otherwise be used for food, which is the main argument of the food vs. fuel problem.
Second, it’s crucial that the production of biofuel doesn’t come at the cost of deforestation or other negative impacts on ecosystems from the irresponsible use of natural resources. In fact, IATA’s sustainability criteria for SAFs states that “feedstock cannot compete with food crops or water resources, and cannot degrade the environment.” If decarbonization technology doesn't follow such basic guidelines, we would be shifting affected areas instead of solving the problem.
Bio SAFs are commonly considered to be one of the most straightforward aviation technology solutions in battling climate change. Though they emit as much carbon dioxide as fossil fuels, their production process has reduced carbon emissions to the same extent, so it’s sort of a net-zero option. In fact, some estimate that SAFs could reduce the total carbon emissions by as much as 80% in specific cases. At present, bio SAFs are two to four times as expensive as fossil fuels, but the cost is likely to decrease with developments in SAF technology.
A McKinsey study estimates that SAFs would need to account for 20% of all jet fuel by the year 2030 if we are to stick on the road to a 1.5 degree Celsius climate change scenario.
Synthetic SAFs are six to ten times more expensive than fossil fuel for jets, but their high price is mostly due to the fact that they are still in the early stages of development and due to the small production runs. Investing in production facilities and expanding their growth would decrease the price of synthetic SAFs so that they could be adopted for broader commercial use.
And that can’t happen a moment too soon, because synthetic SAFs have the potential to be a full-on zero-emission fuel - if they are produced using renewable energy. That would truly be a major leap in the decarbonization of air travel.
Synthetic SAFs are a type of synthetic kerosene or e-kerosene that’s made by combining hydrogen and carbon dioxide. There are some encouraging present-day, real-life examples of how e-kerosene can be produced in a zero-emissions decarbonization process, like Germany’s nonprofit organization Atmosfair.
Atmosfair has launched the first plant for clean jet fuel, where every step of the manufacturing process is focused on decarbonization and carbon neutrality. The hydrogen used for creating the synthetic kerosene is generated using renewable energy from wind turbines, while the CO2 is sourced from biomass and the air in our atmosphere.
The fuel is to be added to conventional kerosene, as is commonly done with SAFs. The ratio is 50-50, and some commercial airlines already utilize SAFs. However, SAFs still account for less than 1% of all jet fuel in the EU, so there's a long way to go before we can say that real progress has been made on a global scale.
Investing in innovation is key for the future of air travel
There’s a pattern you probably noticed by now: these new technologies are costlier than the old ones. Every time we talk about SAFs, we mention how pricier they are than traditional fossil fuels.
And the sad truth is that not many airlines and aircraft producers are ready to switch to sustainable air travel if it affects their bottom line. So what’s the solution to all this? Investing in innovation.
We already talked about how small production runs inflate the price of synthetic kerosene, so how do we overcome that? Build more plants, increase production, and constantly encourage the development of decarbonization technology that finds new ways to feed the engine of zero emissions and sustainable air travel.
If nothing else, giants across all industries have to face two realities. The first one is that decarbonization is key in ensuring that a future exists at all. The second reality, one that’s closer to the wallet, is that the future of air travel is in sustainability, which means that sustainability is a lucrative business opportunity for forward-thinking CEOs. Disruptive technologies are turning away from old, inefficient, and harmful practices to new, eco-friendly, sustainable, and regenerative methods.
The Valuer platform is here to lead the way for investors that have chosen to go green or want to pursue the massive potential of sustainable air travel and eco-friendly aviation technology. Our platform’s AI-driven system will help you identify disruptive investment opportunities, especially in sustainability, with ease. The best part is, you can try a free demo of the platform today and see for yourself what data-driven discovery can do for your organization.