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Is ‘net-zero’ by 2050 achievable for aerospace industry?

By Brian Dunn | July 22, 2022

Estimated reading time 6 minutes, 11 seconds.

To adhere to Paris 2050, a goal to limit global warming to below 2 C (36 F), will take a Herculean effort, but it is achievable.

That was the consensus of a panel discussion at the July 11 to 13 Conference of Montreal, entitled “Clear Skies Ahead: Decarbonizing the Aeronautical Industry.”

“In addition to public pressure, there is pressure from financial companies to do our part. The big challenge is to get governments on board at the ICAO (41st Session) assembly in September,” said Haldane Dodd, executive director of the Geneva-based Air Transport Action Group.

Anthony Saiters Photo

The group’s Waypoint 2050 report explores how the sector may be able to meet net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, with the support of governments and the energy industry.

“We need to share best practices and we also need governments to provide incentives to increase the supply of SAF (sustainable aviation fuel),” said Dodd.

Hydrogen is an “exciting area to watch,” which could be used in single-aisle aircraft on short-haul flights.

“We need to look at all options,” he added.

Air taxis are becoming a booming sector, with over 300 manufacturers globally working on building the electric vertical take-off and landing vehicles of the future, according to Hélène Gagnon, chief sustainability officer and senior VP, Stakeholder Engagement, CAE. Meanwhile, the public is putting more pressure on the aviation industry to reduce its carbon footprint

“Many of our corporate clients are telling U.S. airlines they won’t travel with them if they don’t reduce their greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions,” said Gagnon. “And a prerequisite for some government funding is that we need to have goals (to reduce emissions) in place. So there are solutions.”

There are also more strings attached to such things as airport development and fleet renewal, which makes 2050 a realistic goal, added Dodd.

As an engine manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney is well aware of how its products impact the environment and is continually improving its offerings, according to Christopher Scott McElvaine, VP of business development and commercial services, Pratt & Whitney Canada (P&WC). The improvements are an important consideration with air travel doubling about every 15 years, he noted.

“In 2021, for example, we introduced the geared turbofan engine that offers a 20 percent fuel burn reduction and 50 percent reduction in nitrite oxide,” said McElvaine. “We also have the  PW127XT-S regional turboprop engine, which provides airlines 40 percent more time on wing (fewer repair cycles), a 20 percent reduction in maintenance costs, and a three percent improvement in specific fuel consumption.”

P&WC is continuing a project to equip a De Havilland Dash 8-100 turboprop with a hybrid-electric propulsion system, with demonstration flights scheduled to begin in 2024. It’s part of a $163 million initiative backed by the governments of Quebec and Canada, with a target of a 30 percent reduction in fuel burn and CO2 emissions — compared to current regional prop operators. Pratt & Whitney also has a plan to reduce its GHG emissions by 15 percent at all its facilities by 2025.

“Sustainable aviation fuel is a critical part of how to reach 2050,” noted McElvaine. “The challenges are cost, availability, and demand, with cost two to five times more expensive than aviation jet fuel. In 2019, there were 95 billion gallons of aviation fuel consumed and only 0.1 percent of that was SAF.”

To keep the 1.5 C limit agreed to in Paris within reach, global emissions need to be cut by 45 percent this decade, noted ICAO’s Secretary General Juan Carlos Salazar.

Significant progress has already been made, including adoption of the first global CO₂ emissions standard for aircraft, the brokering of the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, as well as the realization of global standards for the sustainability of aviation fuels as examples.

“The first key priority is for governments to adopt a global Long-Term Aspirational Goal for international aviation CO₂ emissions reductions at the ICAO Assembly in September.”

To help increase the use of SAF, ICAO launched the “Assistance, Capacity-building, and Training for Sustainable Aviation Fuel” program last month. It enables ICAO to coordinate and bring in support from states, industry, international organizations, and financial institutions. It also establishes partnerships and collaboration initiatives to support SAF development and deployment, through bilateral or multilateral agreements.

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  1. Climate-driven heat, fires, floods and storms have killed half a million people over the past 20 years. As the article rightly notes, global GHG emissions need to be cut in half by 2030 to avoid even more widespread death. ICAO’s diversion of attention to a 2050 “long-term aspirational goal”, and its refusal to set bold short-term (2030) targets for emissions reductions (or discuss limits to the rapid growth of air travel) amounts to climate denialism, and a failure of moral responsibility of epic proportions.

  2. Michael, where is your proof that over the past 20 years anthropological generated CO2 has killed half a million people? According to the IPCC 96.5% of all CO2 emissions are released by Mother Nature. If you stats are correct surely a very large portion of those deaths can be attributed to natural release of CO2.

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