It’s rare in aviation that the different interests in civil society and across industry — airframers, airports and airlines — have public and frank discussions about the challenges facing them and how to resolve them. It was thus a welcome surprise when Airbus hosted Making net-zero carbon aviation a reality: a collective challenge, a panel at its recent sustainability summit.
Coming a few months after the European Commission’s “Fit for 55” package, which looks to cut EU carbon emissions by 55% by 2030, it featured Airbus chief executive officer Guillaume Faury, trade association Airlines for Europe managing director Thomas Reynaert, non-governmental umbrella group Transport & Environment’s aviation director Andrew Murphy, Heathrow Airport chief executive officer John Holland-Kaye and the International Energy Agency head of energy technology policy Timur Guel.
The whole panel was thought-provoking, and if there is just one session from the entire summit that you watch or listen to, make it this one.
Notable points included Heathrow’s Holland-Kaye saying that “climate change is an existential issue for all of us in our business. If we don’t get to net zero by 2050, then we won’t have a business.”
The global air transport industry is now largely on board with the 2050 target. Yesterday, during the International Air Transport Association’s 77th Annual General Meeting in Boston, members approved a resolution to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. “This commitment will align with the Paris Agreement goal for global warming not to exceed 1.5°C,” noted IATA.
And last week, the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) — a coalition of aviation industry experts focusing on sustainable development issues — reported that the Covid-19 crisis has increased public and business interest in achieving the 2050 net-zero target. The pressure is now on ICAO to agree a long-term climate goal for the global aviation sector at its 41st assembly in September 2022.
During Airbus’ summit, there was a certain amount of buck-passing in some areas. Holland-Kaye made the argument that ground operations are only 5% of the emissions related to an airport — the rest being in the air. While it isn’t exactly clear where the lines for “ground” versus “air” operations are drawn, this appears low: an IEEE study suggested that electric taxiing alone would reduce total taxi fuel burn by one-third and total fuel burn by 4%, with substantial local emissions benefits as well.
Airports, of course, can play a substantial role in terms of providing infrastructure for initiatives like sustainable aviation fuels and hydrogen power.
Various on-the-ground initiatives are already underway. To wit, the US Federal Aviation Administration and NASA recently announced the completion of research and testing on a software capability that calculates gate pushbacks at busy hub airports so that each plane can roll directly to the runway and to take off. The FAA plans to deploy this capability as part of a larger investment in surface management technology to 27 airports.
“By minimizing taxi delay and ramp congestion, the program reduces fuel burn and CO2 emissions and support[s] the Biden-Harris Administration’s goal to build a sustainable aviation system,” stated the FAA.
Returning to the EC’s Fit for 55 initiative, Transport & Environment’s Murphy argued: “firstly, the industry associations need to get much more supportive of the European legislation which has been proposed,” seemingly referring to the Fit for 55 agenda.
“It’s a fair deal between pricing and new fuels between carrots and sticks. Industry needs to get behind it. Secondly, we need to make it stronger. As I said, in its current form, it’s not enough, so we need an even more ambitious set of measures. The Fit for 55 measures don’t reference aviation’s non CO2 effects. That’s a huge gap. They are the majority of aviation’s warming impact today. And secondly, there’s nothing in 1555 about new aircraft.”
Murphy posed an interesting question around longterm regulatory signalling, a question that echoed the UK’s plan to phase out cars powered entirely by petrol and diesel by 2030.
“It would drive innovation and drive focus in the sector,” Murphy argued, “if we were to say, by 2035: we will end the the sale of jet aircraft for short haul flights in Europe. And that gives you time to come up with new solutions and the alternative: electric or hydrogen, or even hybrid. We do need to start seeing clearer timelines.”
In response, Airbus’ Faury suggested that continuing the sale of new jet planes to replace older and more polluting jet planes had some merit.
The question of whether, then, there might be merit in signalling further restrictions on the older jet planes, along the lines of the ICAO noise and emissions regulations, or like California’s auto emissions standards, was unaddressed.
Murphy also called for Airbus to play a greater role in coalescing airlines and governments, especially in Europe, around an agenda, which got a more positive response from Faury, who said:
We believe at Airbus that we need at least US, Europe and China to have the critical mass to create that level playing field, and have the critical mass for transforming at the right pace and the right speed. We need as well, the energy sector behind us. So we believe it’s extremely important that we show our commitment to the use of SAFs, for instance, to make sure they will be on offer.
Airbus is indeed in a unique position, as the only airframer with final assembly lines in the US, Europe and China, to be able to play that role. Organising, hosting and broadcasting a sustainability summit as the first event after COVID-19, then, is truly a praiseworthy effort — and, hopefully, a first start.
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Featured image credited to Airbus