[Editorial] Net Zero Aviation

Why is a net zero aviation sector needed?

  • Emissions from the sector has increased 2-fold since 2000. In 2018, the sector logged 1 billion tonnes of emission.
  • According to Climate Action Tracker, the aviation sector has been critically insufficient with regards to climate performance.
  • At the same time, climate change is worsening and leading to extreme weather events around the world.
  • Following the loosening of COVID-19 pandemic-induced restrictions, international air travel is expected to rebound and the emissions from the sector is expected to increase dramatically.

What actions have been taken by nations?

  • The Swedish aviation sector has developed a roadmap to achieve fossil-free domestic flights by 2030 and to make all flights from Sweden fossil-free by 2045. This came as a result of the government’s policy decision to make the country climate neutral by 2045.
  • The EU plans to withdraw the tax exemptions for jet fuel. It plans to bring in measures to encourage the use of sustainable fuels.
  • UK is working on a strategy to achieve net zero aviation by 2050. The UK Research and Innovation, a public body, is supporting the development of new technologies such as the hybrid-electric regional aircraft.
  • Australia still lacks a strategic framework to help its aviation industry transition to a cleaner version. However, its Emerging Aviation technology Program aims to reduce emissions.

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What are the challenges?

  • The sector has been disappointingly slow in cutting down its emissions. A study of the world’s 58 largest airlines revealed that even the best-performing airlines weren’t doing enough to reduce emissions.
  • At the Glasgow Summit, the sector simply reasserted a commitment to the ‘Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation’ or CORISA.
    • It is based on the concept of carbon offsetting. This means another actor is paid to cut the emissions on the sector’s behalf at a lower cost. However, this doesn’t result in absolute emission reduction in the sector.
    • It encourages the use of alternative fuels. Here, there is difference in level of emission reduction that can be achieved with various fuels.
  • Government have, in general, failed to provide strong leadership to encourage the sector to cut emissions. The fact that emissions from international aviation isn’t factored into the individual countries’ emission ledger– which leaves no incentive for government action.
  • Despite efforts by several industry leaders and some governments, transition to net zero has been slow. Though electric flights are already in operation, their commercial operation is expected to take off only in 2023. This is because of the need for these technologies to undergo rigorous safety testing and certification.

What is the way ahead?

  • In the past 5 years, low-emissions aircraft technology has undergone significant development. Electric aircrafts and hybrid aircrafts powered by hydrogen/ battery are being developed by Rolls Royce, Airbus and Zero Avia.
  • To achieve fossil-free flights, jet fuel must be replaced with alternatives like SAF (sustainable aviation fuels), battery and hydrogen electric options. Of these alternatives, the battery powered and hydrogen electric technology are notable for significantly reducing the emissions of non-CO₂ pollutants like NOx, sulfur oxides and soot.
  • This decade is to see rapid development of hybrid crafts for servicing different requirements: short-haul, commuter, air taxi, helicopter and general flights.
  • Clear strategy must be developed by the governments to put the sector on track to becoming net zero while remaining competitive.
  • Governments need to pay attention to:
    • Encouraging R&D for aircraft and fuel development
    • Updating processes for regulation and certification of new types of aircrafts
    • Enhancing production and deployment of the new fuels and technologies
    • Improving route efficiency and air traffic management to reduce fuel demand
    • Greening airport infrastructure and their operation
    • Building the capacities of pilots and aerospace engineers
  • Consumers can do their part by choosing low impact options among the different flights and itineraries and offsetting their carbon footprint (arising from air travel).
  • The pandemic has jolted the sector but it has also presented an opportunity to build the sector back in a better and different form.

Conclusion:

Realizing a net zero aviation requires emission reduction to be at the heart of the sector’s post-pandemic bounce back plan. It requires the participation of the governments, industry players, consumers and researchers.

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