Green Aviation – Could commercial planes soon be powered by clean energy? The aviation industry, which accounts for around 5% of all greenhouse gases has been experimenting with technologies like battery, solar and even hydrogen. So far none of these projects have gone beyond testing, and are far from being commercially viable. But in the midst of an industry-wide crisis caused by coronavirus pandemic, the world’s largest flights maker, Airbus, announced plans to put zero emission aircraft into commercial service by 2035.
What experts say about flights?
Economists, climate change experts and engineers alike are arguing that if governments attach climate conditions to bailouts handed out in the pandemic, it could not only help save the aviation industry, but it could also help reduce its carbon footprint, and crucially create new jobs. It’s in these periods of recession and downturn that governments spend the most. And so really it is the single greatest opportunity to redirect the future of our industries.
Could the coronavirus pandemic lead to Green Aviation?
The aviation industry has been hit hard by the pandemic. A 95% drop in air travel in April has led to airlines canceling orders for new planes and Boeing and Airbus axing tens of thousands of workers with governments stepping in to provide aid. In the US $25 billion has been offered to US airlines through the Cares Act. But some in the industry as well as scholars and officials believe that governments should be attaching climate conditions to stimulus.
There’s an opportunity to combine economic performance and for positive environmental performance. The benefits of adding green conditionality to these bailouts is that you both protect the current jobs. And you induce new jobs both in the short-term in some of the research intensive industries, but then also in the long-term in terms of actually building new products.
What options are available for the sector to decarbonize?
Well, the industry has been exploring ideas for a few decades. Despite its continued heavy dependency on kerosene-based jet fuel, it has managed to reduce its emissions per passenger by some 70% since the 1960s. Simply by focusing on making planes that are lighter and can fly further using less fuel. The problem is there are way more people flying now than there were in the sixties, and that’s wiped out all of those gains. And while researchers predict the pandemic will lead to emissions dropping by more than a third this year, it’s expected that air traffic will rebound in the coming years. All of which leaves the sector nowhere closer to hitting targets of cutting CO2 emissions in half by 2050, compared to 2005 levels.
If we want to make another big change in emissions per passenger, we need to radically change things. Gregoire Carpentier is co-founder of Supaero Decarbo, a group of former students from France’s leading aviation university, who are lobbying for the industry to decarbonize. He believes that in its ambitions to become less carbon intensive, the aviation industry faces a problem unlike many other industries.
Therein massive amount of energy in a minimum space, otherwise you cannot carry that energy in the air. While many alternatives to jet fuel have been proposed they all share one common problem, right now nothing is as efficient or economical as kerosene. Kerosene as been the most concentrated energy that we ever found. Biofuels derived from organic biomass are an alternative that’s already available, but it’s currently more expensive than kerosene and requires huge investment to achieve widespread availability.
Battery technology has been tested by some companies, including Airbus, but the company believes they’re just too heavy to be economically viable in planes. We don’t believe that really it’s a today relevant technology for large commercial aircraft. And solar simply doesn’t generate enough power. The solar-powered plane made by start-up Solar Impulse has a wingspan wider than a 747 and is as light as a family car, but can still only average 47 miles per hour.
Airbus efforts on Green Aviation
Airbus is hoping hydrogen can become aviation’s fuel of the future. One particular technology pathway, which we find most promising is hydrogen. Airbus has said it can have these hydrogen planes in production by 2035. And is hoping that by announcing them now, it can prompt the rest of the industry to follow suit. We’re putting a stake in the ground. And making it very clear that the aviation industry needs to also be powered by renewable energy.
But even hydrogen has its problems. Right now it’s projected to be more expensive than kerosene. And would take up more space, which means less seats on the plane. It’s four times more volume than kerosene so we store it in the fuselage again. And you see these aft part of the fuselage being windowless. There’s also the problem that hydrogen is currently synthesized mostly by burning fossil fuels. And while it might be good for powering small vehicles. It may not be efficient enough to power large planes on long haul flights. At least in the first iteration of hydrogen aircraft technology. Long range will not be a market segment that we address. And of course, none of this technology or its development comes cheap.
Final Thoughts on Green Aviation
When talking about its ambition to make these planes Airbus says. That is an ambition which will require billions in terms of investment.
Airbus hopes that some of that money will come from the government. If it’s to turn its hydrogen concepts into a reality. And that’s where these bailout funds could come in. In France Airbus’ home, the government has attached climate conditions to recent investments. Air France for example, was bailed out by the French government. To the tune of some $8.2 billion in June this year. Under the condition that the airline halves it’s carbon emissions by 2030. But while France may be using the pandemic to push for its aviation industry to reduce emissions. For some countries that opportunity may already have passed.
Brian O’callaghan’s research studied thousands of economic policies and found that many have not opted for climate conditions. In total we find that at least $140 billion has been spent on aviation. Now of that we’ve seen only $14 billion, only 10% with green conditions. That is 90% of airline bailouts that’s going towards the continuation of a dirty industry without enabling the long-term transition.