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Destination carbon-neutral aviation

A roadmap

No means of transport is faster than an airplane – travelling from London to New York by ship takes 10 days. The same trip on a plane doesn’t even take 10 hours. Essential supply chains like the one needed to transport COVID-19 vaccines, which require continuous refrigeration, would hardly be feasible without air transportation– or would in any case come at an increased cost. Flying has been connecting humans, cultures and countries as a world wide web even before the internet came into existence. Today, aircraft are emitting greenhouse gases that are harmful to the environment – but what will the future bring? The aviation industry is already demonstrating that the dream of flying is not irreconcilable with carbon neutrality. Aircraft manufacturers, researchers and airlines are exploring innovative ways to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.

From 20 hours to 20 minutes – flying reduces the temporal dimension

Why do we fly? To answer this question, we need to look at back to world’s first commercial flight: More than 100 years ago, the first airline passenger crossed Tampa Bay in the US-State of Florida. The linear distance was 30 kilometres. The travel times back then: 20 hours by car, two hours by steamboat and only 20 minutes by plane!

Aircrafts create physical connections between people and markets at greater speed and over longer distances than any other means of transport. Today, a person who wants to travel to New York doesn't ask himself: ten hours on a plane or ten days on a ship across the Atlantic? The real question for most people today is rather: do I want to take a plane or just stay at home altogether? Without planes there would be no international political summits nor global scientific conferences. No Olympic Games or football world championships. Also holidays, business trips or visits to family and friends in distant regions would be practically inconceivable without the possibility of flying.

Phones, medical supplies and world trade

The same is true for the movement of goods. Going by the value of products, one third of all global trade is carried out by plane. This is especially true for high-value goods and items that need to be delivered quickly. For instance, most auxiliary materials and about one fifth of all medical supplies are delivered by plane. During the COVID-19 pandemic, masks, ventilators and vaccines could be distributed quickly because of airplanes. Many machines, spare or automotive parts - goods from German core industries - also reach their customers worldwide via air freight. And vice versa: 90% of smartphones arrive in Germany by air. In short: without airplanes, both world trade and the life we have come to enjoy in the industrialised countries would look completely different. This explains the strong growth of air traffic, which more or less doubles every 15 years. And although the economy and society have seemingly pressed the pause button during the pandemic – in the long term, experts expect new growth in air traffic.

Achieving climate neutrality is a competitive advantage

At first glance, more air traffic translates to higher greenhouse gas emissions. Particularly in times of climate change, this equation does not hold up. On the path to a climate-neutral economy, key players – be it the general public, politicians or climate activists, as well as airlines, passengers and investors – are demanding a clear commitment from the aviation industry to achieving the energy transition in the skies. Only sustainable aviation can ensure mobility and climate protection in the long term and thus retain its “license to operate”. The aviation industry was quick to recognise its responsibility to protect our environment and has actively addressed the challenges it faces in this regard. It has since delivered – and continues to deliver: Today, 90% of investments in research and development are aimed at reducing emissions and noise pollution. Since the advent of the jet-age, total emissions per passenger-kilometre have already decreased by over 80%. Modern aircraft that utilise cutting-edge German technology consume only two litres per passenger per 100 kilometres. And the challenge continues.

Today, each new generation of aircraft reduces kerosene consumption and thus emissions by a further 25%, lowering the fuel costs in the process. Environmental protection and competitiveness go hand in hand. There is no contradiction between economic growth and clean flying; On the contrary, in the fiercely contested global market, the winning player is the one who can offer aircraft, engines, systems and equipment that are quieter, safer, cleaner and more comfortable than predecessor models. As a result, today’s innovations contribute to achieving the competitive advantages of tomorrow. The outcomes are truly remarkable and based on decades of consistent and forward-looking political funding for research and development.

Destination 2050 – The flight to a climate-neutral future is now boarding

The bar for climate-neutral flying , however, is higher: with its “Destination 2050” roadmap, the European aviation industry has committed itself to the goal of truly achieving climate neutrality by the middle of the century. But how is it possible to reduce emissions to zero? The answer: There simply is no universal solution to such a daunting task. Rather, it will require various smaller and coordinated measures. This begins with but goes far beyond novel concepts for aerodynamical shapes, smart materials and lightweight constructions. By improving flight routes – for example by considering favourable (tail)winds – emissions from commercial aviation could be reduced by up to 16% according to a 2021 study carried out by the University of Reading. The greatest potential, however, lies in more efficient, electric engines and sustainable aviation fuels. The energy transition in the sky requires the engagement of society as a whole, and can only be achieved through the close cooperation between politics, industry, science, research and trade unions.

Battery-powered flying?

The vision of a small, electric aircraft is already being tested in the practice. Start-ups and corporations around the world are in a close race to research and develop battery-powered flying machines. As things currently stand, up to 12 passengers could fly electrically for up to 500 kilometres – enough for a trip from Frankfurt to Paris. These small aircraft would offer an emission-free solution to air taxis that could be used locally or regionally. Electrically powered mini-helicopters could also be used at the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris to shorten travel times and relieve inner-city congestion. However, the weight of the batteries will remain a limiting factor for the foreseeable future.

Hydrogen is considered an option for medium-haul routes

In order to cover flight distances of up to 3,000 kilometres, researchers are also looking at hydrogen-based solutions . Aircraft turbines could be adapted to burn hydrogen instead of kerosene with minor modifications. If the hydrogen is “green” – i.e. is produced entirely from renewable energies – the immediate carbon emissions are effectively reduced to zero. The challenge: hydrogen has about four times more volume than kerosene. In its liquid state, it must be constantly cooled to -253 degrees Celsius. Consequently, airplanes that use hydrogen would require larger tanks, which would have to move from their current position in wings of the aircraft wings deeper into the fuselage. The design for the aircraft and its aerodynamic properties would thus need to be adapted to match these changes. However, hydrogen liquefaction requires energy and the tanks have to be well insulated. This clearly demonstrates that future technologies used in aviation are hugely complex. Nevertheless, the first hydrogen aircraft ready for mass production is expected to take off as early as the mid-2030s!

Sustainable Aviation Fuels offer a climate-neutral approach for long-distance routes

Even though the name may sound complicated, Sustainable Aviation Fuels – or simply SAFs – are already in use today. On long-distance flights, these fuels can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to 80%. These sustainable fuels can be produced by processing biomass from natural waste, energy crops or algae. On some routes, passenger flights are already being fuelled by blended SAFs today. So what’s the catch? The quantities of SAF made from biomass are not sufficient to cover the needs of commercial aviation. The future thus lies in synthetic fuels. These are climate-neutral because industrial plants are used to extract the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during production, which is then released back into the air during combustion. In order to scale the existing prototype-plants into commercially viable factories, the demand for- and production of synthetic fuel has to increase significantly. A tour de force which would be worthwhile: after all, long-haul flights are responsible for 75% of all CO2 emissions while only accounting for 25% of air traffic.

Sustainability is teamwork – conducted by the industry trailblazers at #ILA22

Aviation is an integral part of our modern lives. It affects us all and is on the brink of a technological revolution. Industrial groups, suppliers, SMEs, start-ups, researchers, the science community and politics are all working towards climate-neutral flying. At #ILA22, stakeholders from all over the world and all sectors will come together to reach one common: destination: a climate-neutral future!

Destination carbon-neutral aviation


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  • ILA Berlin Team