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Is Sustainable Aviation Achievable By 2050?


Plane covered in green paint

In a recent statement shared by sustainability organisation Sustainable Aviation, they proposed a long-term strategy to achieve a ‘net zero carbon emissions commitment’ by 2050, presenting a cleaner and greener future for the aviation industry. Yet, with so much societal and public pressure on all travel and transport industries to create more environmental-friendly alternatives to both fuels and harmful emissions, the aviation industry is facing an uphill battle to meet this target.


How Does The Aviation Industry Operate Today?


In this era of post-COVID recovery and a significant cost of living crisis, the aviation industry is struggling to regain the popularity it once had in the 2010s. Before international warfare, the rising awareness of long-haul flight emissions, COVID restrictions and inflation, society as a whole favoured flying and aviation as a commonplace mode of transport. But as business trips became Zoom calls, summer holidays became stay-cations and celebrity influencers became climate activists, casual flights became a thing of the past.


Whilst many airline companies and organisations have been making progress towards a more eco-friendly operation, with carbon offsetting available to purchase through accessible online sources, the harmful emissions of a flight are still a sticking point for many travellers.


With the continued usage of fossil-derived aviation turbine fuel’ remaining as the leading choice of fuel for commercial and private airlines, and environmental factors such as noise, light and water pollution all being linked in with aviation, the industry as a whole ranks highly when it comes to unsustainability.


The Alternative Turbine Fuel Options


Over the past few years, scientists have been making significant breakthroughs in the way they approach alternative aviation fuel production. In September 2023, aerospace engineer Phil Ansell conducted a sizable experiment, evaluating and comparing 300 different research projects to source the most viable options for sustainable aviation fuel.


Establishing just how well these alternative fuels stood up against fossil fuel in experiments of aircraft performance and fuel handling, Ansell was able to create a ranking of the best performing fuels and share his findings publicly. Though he stressed that no individual fuel would suit every aviation circumstance - noting that environmental, social and financial factors would make a difference to the overall fuel performance - he did identify some of the most promising options.


From bio jet fuel pathways for synthetic kerosene to liquid hydrogen, ethanol and electric battery fuel sources, the options were varied but universally provided a less harmful output when it came to aviation usage.


Further Steps of Progress for the Aviation Industry


It should be said, however, that alternative fuels alone aren’t the single solution to the climate crisis, particularly in the aviation industry. Other steps are being introduced around the world to help reduce the harmful impact of flying and improve the sustainability of the industry.


Improved Air Traffic Control


Recent reports have found that optimising air traffic routes, reducing congestion, and improving efficiency through better air traffic management systems can lead to significant emissions reductions. With the Centralny Port Komunikacyjny (CPK) in Poland already committed to reforming their air traffic control management system, and the bodies at Eurocontrol making plans to do the same, it’s a positive step for a more sustainable mode of transport.


Improved Aerodynamics


Whilst the aerospace industry is continually improving upon the aerodynamic abilities of their crafts, ongoing research and development to create more aerodynamically efficient aircrafts, designs and materials can lead to reduced fuel consumption and emissions. Organisations such as Ogab, NASA, and Cranfield University have already begun recommending technological changes to help reduce the over carbon emissions of the crafts - from enhanced braking capacities to wing-shaping control.


Electric and Hybrid Aircrafts


One of the most eagerly awaited steps towards sustainable aviation is the introduction of electric and hybrid aircrafts. Electric and hybrid-electric propulsion systems are currently being developed for smaller regional and short-haul aircrafts, with the potential to reduce emissions and noise pollution significantly. However as the technology progresses, the industry is hopeful that electric aircrafts will soon become available for international and long-haul flights too.


 

‘Whilst there is still a long way to go before the aviation industry can become truly Net Zero, and many important changes are going to be required along the way, it’s promising to see such a vital and essential transport option adapting to the climate crisis we currently face. I’m looking forward to seeing the next generation of sustainable aircrafts and aviation choices available over the next few years.’


Nathan Hagerty, Land Analyst (CEC)

 






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