net zero aviation is more than a fantasy flight

As international air travel rebounds from COVID-19 restrictions, greenhouse gas emissions from aviation are expected to increase dramatically – and with it, close scrutiny of the industry’s environmental benchmarks.

Aviation emissions have almost doubled since 2000 and achieved in 2018 a billion tons. Climate Action Tracker assesses the climate performance of industry as critically insufficient.

As the threat of climate change rapidly escalates, can aviation make the transition to a low-carbon future – and perhaps even achieve net zero emissions? The major technological and energy disruptions looming on the horizon for the industry suggest that such a future is possible.

But significant challenges remain. Achieving a net zero aviation sector will require a huge collaborative effort from industry and government – and consumers can play their part, too.

Rebuild better

The aviation sector’s progress in reducing emissions has been disappointing to date. For example, in February last year, research of the world’s 58 largest airlines found that even the top performers were not doing enough to cut emissions.

More recently, at the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, the industry simply reaffirmed its commitment to a plan known as the Carbon Offsets and Reduction Program for International Aviation.

The program is based on carbon offsetting, which essentially pays another actor to reduce emissions on their behalf at the lowest cost, and does not lead to an absolute reduction in aviation emissions. The program also encourages cleaner alternative fuels, but the level of emission reductions between fuels varies widely.

Read more: Big airlines say they are taking action on climate change. Our research reveals how little they’ve accomplished

Governments have generally not shown strong leadership in helping the aviation sector reduce emissions. Part of the reason is that pollution from international aviation is not counted in any country’s emissions registry, which gives governments little incentive to act. Aviation is also a complex political space to navigate, involving multiple actors across the world. However, COVID-19 has dramatically rocked the aviation and travel industry, providing an opportunity to rebuild better – and differently.

Griffith University recently hosted a webinar series on the decarbonization of aviation, involving experts from industry, academia and government. The sessions explored the most promising policy and practical developments for net zero aviation, as well as the most important obstacles.

COVID-19 has dramatically shaken the aviation industry.
Steven Senne / AP

Booming nations

Some governments are leading the way for change in the aviation industry. For example, as a result of government policy to make Sweden climate neutral by 2045, the Swedish aviation industry has developed a roadmap for domestic flights without fossil fuels by 2030, and for all flights from Sweden to be fossil-free by 2045.

Carrying out fossil fuel-free flights requires replacing jet fuel with alternatives such as sustainable fuels or electric and hydrogen propulsion.

The European Union is considering end the current tax exemptions for jet fuel and introduce measures accelerate adoption of sustainable fuels.

The United Kingdom is finalizing its strategy of net zero aviation by 2050 and a public body known as UK Research and Innovation is proof the development of new aeronautical technologies, including hybrid electric regional aircraft.

Australia does not have a policy framework or emission reduction targets to facilitate the transition of the aviation industry. the Emerging Aviation Technologies Program seeks to reduce carbon emissions, among other goals. However, it appears to be heavily focused on cargo transport drones and urban air vehicles, rather than fixed-wing aircraft.

Read more: How a 1940s treaty put airlines on the path to high emissions and low regulation

plane taking off
Some governments are leading the way for change in the aviation industry.
Zhao Xiaojun / AP

Building the plane of tomorrow

Low-emission aircraft technology has developed considerably over the past five years. Advances include electric and hybrid planes (powered by hydrogen or a battery) – like the one developed by Airbus, Rolls Royce and Zero Avia – as good as sustainable aviation fuels.

Each of these technologies can reduce carbon emissions, but only battery-powered and hydrogen-powered electric options significantly reduce COâ‚‚-free climate impacts such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), soot particles, oxidized sulfur species and water vapor.

For electric planes to be net zero emissions, they must be powered by renewable energy sources. In addition to being better for the planet, electric and hydrogen airplanes are likely to have inferior energy and maintenance costs than conventional airplanes.

This decade, we expect a rapid emergence of electric and hybrid aircraft for short-haul flights, shuttles, air taxis, helicopters and general flights. An increased use of sustainable aviation fuel is also likely.

Although electric planes are flying, commercial operations are not expected until at least 2023, as the plane must undergo rigorous testing, safety and certification.

Solar-powered airplane prototype flies over mountainous terrain
Electric planes exist, but the road to commercialization is long. Pictured: A prototype solar-powered plane flies near the Franco-Italian border.
Laurent Gilliéron / EPA

Overcome Turbulence

Despite genuine efforts by some industry leaders and governments to make aviation a net-zero industry, significant policy and practical challenges remain. The conversion to the general commercial public is not happening quickly enough.

To help decarbonise aviation in Australia, industry and government should develop a clear emissions reduction strategy with interim targets for 2030 and 2040. This would allow the industry to remain competitive and on track for net zero emissions by 2050.

Strategic attention and action is also needed to:

  • advance innovation and the development of aircraft and fuels

  • update regulatory and certification processes for new types of aircraft

  • improve the production and deployment of new fuels and aviation technologies

  • reduce fuel demand through efficient road and air traffic management

  • create “greener” airport operations and infrastructure

  • build capacity with pilots and aerospace engineers.

Emissions created by flights and routes may vary considerably. Consumers can do their part by opting for the low-impact option and offsetting the emissions created by their theft through a credible program. Consumers can also choose to travel only with airlines and operators that are committed to net zero emissions.

Zero-net aviation must not remain an imaginary boom, but to make it a reality, reducing emissions must be at the heart of the pandemic aviation rebound.

Read more: Reducing small amounts of air travel each year could mitigate climate impact

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