Green shift in aerospace needs government strategy

AvatarBy Chris Thatcher | January 13, 2021

Estimated reading time 9 minutes, 19 seconds.

Kermit had it only half right: Being green isn’t easy, but becoming green might be even tougher. And it won’t happen without a lot of investment and support from government. As countries plan their recovery from a global pandemic, many are earmarking funding for initiatives that will reduce their carbon emissions and improve their environmental footprint.

Aerospace will be no exception. In presentations and panel discussions during the International Aerospace Week forum, hosted virtually by Aero Montreal in mid-December, government officials and industry executives predicted aerospace strategies and recovery plans that will be decidedly green in color.

If the aerospace sector is to deliver on the high expectations of carbon-neutral flight, electric aircraft, digitized workplaces and processes, autonomy and advanced manufacturing, it must be recognized as a strategic asset. Jan Jasinski Photo

“The strategies will be around green recovery for sure,” Suzanne Benoit, president of Aero Montreal, a strategic think tank for the Quebec aerospace cluster, told Skies in a recent interview. “There is momentum right now for the greening of the economy. That will be a major component in the strategy of Quebec.”

The provincial government unveiled a plan to develop a stronger green economy in late November, and is expected to issue an update to its 10-year aerospace strategy, launched in 2016, that will include incentives for green investments.

“We will be coming to the industry in January,” Pierre Fitzgibbon, Minister of Economy and Innovation, told the forum. “Our intention is to encourage the industry to invest now in the development of new technologies that will be part of the aircraft and space systems of tomorrow.”

The sector has already experienced about 4,500 layoffs in the greater Montreal area since the pandemic began, and more are expected during what is anticipated by analysts — such as Richard Aboulafia of the Teal Group — to be a gradual recovery over the two to three years. 

In addition to concerns about losing highly-skilled talent, Fitzgibbon noted the risk to companies that have slowed investments in digitization, robotics and other efforts to improve operations necessary for the future workplace. Compounding problems as companies have cut budgets, one of the “unwanted effects of the crisis” has been a reduction in R&D spending, he added.

Quebec has offered some sectoral assistance through Investment Quebec and other agencies, but Fitzgibbon wants to be more “aggressive” and direct in financing innovation investments to “accelerate the recovery.” Along with the updated aerospace strategy, the provincial government will soon launch five “innovation zones,” including one for aerospace proposed by Aero Montreal. This would ensure the resources of academic research, labs, Tier 1 suppliers, small businesses and start-ups are brought together “to promote synergies.”

The government wants “to put the first charge in the battery” by building the infrastructure to make collective projects happen, Fitzgibbon said. And many of those will have a green focus as the province promotes its expertise in green hydrogen and biofuels. “I see the electrification of transport being one of the pillars to deliver to our next generations the reduction of our carbon footprint,” he emphasized. 

Several Montreal-area companies are already well down that path. In October, CAE announced it had become carbon neutral by reducing its emissions and investing in projects that offset its remaining emissions. CAE’s approach was highlighted during the forum by president Marc Parent, who also predicted “a green recovery” for aerospace.

Pratt & Whitney Canada and Longview Aviation Capital also confirmed a demonstrator project involving some 60 organizations, from aerospace companies to laboratories, and Transport Canada to develop a hybrid aircraft. The Canadian Sustainable Aviation Flight Demonstrator and Ecosystem aims to leverage state-of-the-art capabilities in the sector and beyond, “so our industry can take advantage of the huge hybrid market we see coming,” explained Maria Della Posta, president of Pratt & Whitney Canada. 

“The cost of developing new designs is so prohibitive, so we need to look at [the aircraft] we have today and how to get second and third lifecycles out of them,” said David Curtis, president of Viking Air and chairman of Longview Aviation Capital. 

With the cost of developing new technology so high, Curtis argued the sector is “at an inflection point,” and government direction and partnerships are essential “to secure industry’s future in Canada” — if it is to successfully identify and navigate the right path for investments in green and emerging technology.

Other countries, including the United States, United Kingdom, France and Germany, have “used the crisis to pump money into R&D to keep their talent, but also to mobilize and help companies come out of the crisis,” said Benoit. 

“This sector is going to play a vital role as we move forward to deal with the economic fallout associated with COVID-19,” Navdeep Bains — who until Jan. 12 was the federal Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry — assured the forum. 

He highlighted the support offered by the National Research Council of Canada’s Industrial Research Assistance Program (IRAP) to help small and medium aerospace companies retain their talent, and pointed to funding allocated in the fall fiscal update for airport health and safety infrastructure. But he acknowledged more financial support is needed, including “liquidity support,” to ensure smaller businesses weather the effects of the pandemic.

“A key investment we want to make is in the aerospace sector,” he said. “In the coming months you will see additional measures announced in supporting the aerospace sector, focusing on growth, jobs, research and development and new technologies across the country, but particularly in Quebec.”

Aerospace was flagged as one of the hardest hit sectors in “Restart, Recover, and Reimagine Prosperity for all Canadians,” a recovery growth plan delivered to the government by the Industry Strategy Council in early December. “The sector will . . . need investments in environmentally sustainable aviation and aerospace technologies to remain competitive,” according to the report. “A mix of policy tools, including support for airlines, renewed innovation funding and procurement could reinvigorate the Canadian aerospace sector and supply chain.”

Bains noted the $3 billion allocated for the Strategic Innovation Fund that includes industry incentives for decarbonization and net zero projects. “If you have projects . . . we are willing to step up,” he said.

If the aerospace sector is to deliver on the high expectations of carbon-neutral flight, electric aircraft (manned and unmanned), digitized workplaces and processes, autonomy and advanced manufacturing, it must be recognized as a strategic asset, said Benoit. “We need a long-term strategy for aerospace. If we don’t have one, it will be piece by piece . . . and [talent] will go to a jurisdiction where there is a commitment from the government to support innovation.”

The key conclusion of the forum, she stressed, “is that our industry worldwide recognizes the importance of reducing the environmental impact, and we need to work together to accelerate the shift, not country by country in silos.”

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