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Can the aviation industry really go green?

Innovations in new aircraft materials and technologies helping but bumpy ride ahead

The aviation industry must continue on its green trajectory by implementing effective and economically feasible climate strategies. Photograph: Getty

The aviation industry must continue on its green trajectory by implementing effective and economically feasible climate strategies. Photograph: Getty

 

Climate change is a battle that can be fought at a personal level or at a corporate one. As an industry, the aviation sector has certainly been feeling the push towards becoming more sustainable. Given the many environmental flashpoints that form a part of the industry – from jet fuel to mining for materials – how likely is it that aviation can become sustainable?

With the sector alone contributing two to three per cent of total global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, there has been increased pressure for the industry to become accountable for its impact. This has led to global initiatives which target the industry heavily in regards to carbon offsets and sustainable fuel, such as the international Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).

There are also Europe-wide mandates and recommendations, including the EU Commission’s “Fit for 55” proposals. Fit for 55 will support the EU’s climate policy framework and put it on track for a 55 per cent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and net-zero emissions by 2050.

Current measures

The aviation industry and in particular the airlines have long been conscious of pollution – whether noise or carbon – but there has been a concerted effort in recent years to ensure that green measures are being taken as far as possible across the board. Can they go far enough?

Laura Cunningham, partner in Arthur Cox’s Aviation Group
Laura Cunningham, partner in Arthur Cox’s Aviation Group

Laura Cunningham, partner in Arthur Cox’s Aviation Group, says that, while difficult, there are multiple ways that the industry can move toward being more sustainable.

“As an initial approach, industry actors have been developing more efficient aircraft, through the redesign of aircraft such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, or by developing new aircraft materials and technologies,” she says.

As well as this, the airlines have begun to utilise and invest in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) blends, Cunningham explains. “There has also been investment into carbon offsetting, which mitigates the effect of air travel by allowing passengers and airlines to compensate for emissions associated with flying by investing in carbon reduction projects. These initiatives have been encouraged by governmental intervention such as the EU Commission’s Fit for 55 proposals.”

Dr Marina Efthymiou, course director for M.Sc. in Aviation Leadership, and assistant professor in Aviation Management, Business School, DCU
Dr Marina Efthymiou, course director for M.Sc. in Aviation Leadership, and assistant professor in Aviation Management, Business School, DCU

Dr Marina Efthymiou is the course director for M.Sc in Aviation Leadership, and assistant professor in Aviation Management, Business School, DCU. She agrees that changes can and are being made.

“Technological innovations in aircraft frames, engines and fuel are fundamentals for sustainability,” Dr Efthymiou says. “With improved technology readiness levels, the industry is also confident about the introduction of a hydrogen-powered single-aisle aircraft on intra-European routes by 2035 with improved range and capacity. SAFs are scaling up and their uptake by the industry with blending mandates is being increased.”

Thomas Fowler, director of sustainability at Ryanair
Thomas Fowler, director of sustainability at Ryanair

Hitting targets and moving goals

As a major airline, Ryanair takes sustainability seriously. The company is currently partnering with Trinity College Dublin to look at SAFs and discover which blend is optimal to reduce the most greenhouse gases. It has set itself a goal of using 12.5 per cent SAF by 2030 – ahead of the Fit for 55’s five per cent SAF mandate by 2030.

Thomas Fowler, director of sustainability at Ryanair, says a multi-pronged approach is needed in this battle. He explains how “investing in new, fuel-efficient planes, ensuring the fleet is as modern as possible, and flying at almost full capacity as far as possible have all managed to bring Ryanair’s CO2 per passenger per km to 66 grams.”

Aer Lingus is also committed to sustainability. Donal Moriarty, chief corporate affairs officer at Aer Lingus, says in addition to committing to net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and investing in greater fuel efficiency and more environmentally friendly aircraft, it is addressing sustainability on-board too. “…(W)e are focused on reducing waste on-board the aircraft, exploring sustainable alternative products for use on-board, and reducing water consumption. We also plan to eliminate single-use plastics entirely from our flight offering.”

Decarbonisation is very difficult due to the relatively long lifespan of aircraft and its international dimension, but necessary and not impossible

It’s not all in the hands of the airlines though – airports and air traffic control can play a part, according to Efthymiou. “Initiatives like the Single European Sky have also contributed to shortening flight paths with significant fuel savings.” The Single European Sky is a European Commission initiative that aims to reform the European air traffic management system to improve European airspace in four areas, namely capacity, safety, efficiency and environmental impact.

Airports are not exempt, either. “Airports like Dublin airport are participating in the ACI Carbon Accreditation Scheme, and are reducing the contribution to climate change by investing in energy efficiency and alternative sources working towards carbon neutrality,” says Efthymiou.

Efthymiou believes carbon neutrality is a challenge. “Decarbonisation is very difficult due to the relatively long lifespan of aircraft and its international dimension, but necessary and not impossible. It needs to be designed carefully to avoid market distortions and ensure a level playing field for aviation companies of various sizes and consider all socio-economic effects.”

A new future on the horizon?

The ability to reduce carbon emissions and possibly even achieve carbon neutrality is there – but what does the aviation industry have to do now, to reach this goal in the future?

Laura Cunningham says, “To ensure the aviation industry continues on its green trajectory there must be mutual cooperation with government bodies to implement effective and economically feasible climate strategies.”