For many years the aviation industry has been under scrutiny for its role as a major contributor to climate change. Commercial flying produces 2.5% of carbon emissions worldwide. At present airplanes produce less carbon emissions than passenger cars or power plants. However, industry experts predict that passenger numbers will increase in the future which will lead to an increase in pollutants. Therefore, the aviation industry may find it increasingly difficult to achieve carbon neutrality. The air travel industry has been consistently expanding over the past few decades as the growing middle class is targeted and flight costs are lowered. Because of this it is looking to take on responsibility to reduce emissions whilst still remaining profitable. 

OneWorld, who carry 527.9 million passengers worldwide, became the first global airline alliance to commit to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. The group’s members, which include American Airlines, British Airways and Qatar Airways acknowledge that with the rise in frequent flyers they must also bear some responsibility for the environmental implications that air travel brings. As part of this effort the members are looking to showcase a commitment to becoming more sustainable in a number of ways. For example, British Airways have invested in the Altatlto Immingham project. This is a collaboration between British Airways, Velocys and Shell to develop the first commercial-scale waste-to-transport fuels plant in the UK. It aims to convert hundreds of thousands of tonnes of household and office recycling waste into 60 million litres of clean-burning sustainable transport fuel. The Altalto programme also aims to develop waste wood as a way to fuel US projects, coupling it with carbon capture and storage technologies. The project should also ensure the UK becomes a world leader in waste-to-fuel technologies by tapping into the aviation industry.

On a more local level, Sustainable Aviation is an alliance of UK aviation-based businesses which includes EasyJet, Rolls Royce, Heathrow and Air BP, who have created a ‘decarbonisation roadmap’ to cut carbon emissions. Sustainable Aviation are keen to drive a domestic sustainable aviation fuel sector that could be worth £2.7 billion by 2035 by implementing effective market-based policy measures. One of these measures includes persuading the Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation to make it a requirement for transport fuel suppliers to ensure a percentage of fuel must come from sustainable sources. The group also want to raise ambition for carbon capture, utilisation and storage technologies and want to ensure UK carbon removal solutions are eligible for airline investment. Ultimately, the coalition hopes the UK can accommodate the 70% growth in passengers expected by 2050 whilst completely eliminating carbon emissions.

On an individual level, certain companies have already taken steps to reduce their own carbon emissions. Since 2011 Virgin Atlantic has had a long-term Sustainable Aviation Fuel Partnership with LanzaTech. The Partnership uses a carbon capture and utilisation system. The system takes waste carbon monoxide from heavy industries and recycles it into ethanol and other low carbon products. It has been found that the sustainable fuel has more than 70% lower carbon emissions compared to regular fossil jet fuel. Fortunately, it is now ready to commercialise after a successful flight from Orlando to London Gatwick in October 2018. Financially LanzaTech will also be able to produce this affordable fuel at a similar price to current fossil kerosene prices. It is hopeful then that this carbon-technology breakthrough will be a commercial reality.

Some ongoing decarbonisation technology solutions with the aviation industry include the use of alternative propulsion methods. Examples of these include using electricity and hydrogen-fuel. Though a fully electric commercial aircraft is unlikely to exist by 2050, the idea is a good first step. US based startup Ampaire, alongside Mokulele Airlines are currently piloting hybrid-electric technology on small scale with planes accommodating up to ten passengers. The issue with electric-based flying is that at present batteries have a lower energy density compared to other fuels. Electric aircrafts would need to carry more than 50kg battery weight for every 1kg kerosene used today. Similarly hydrogen-fuel-based flights, whilst being carbon-free, would also require four times the volume of kerosene for storage on flights. Airports would also require new refuelling infrastructures to store liquified hydrogen.

So far it is promising to see that many aviation companies are already working towards using alternative technologies and fuels. In order to achieve these ambitious net-zero emission targets, the aviation industry as a whole will require strong, consistent support through international collaborations. With everyone working towards achieving this stretching emissions target, the next thirty years should hopefully see an overhaul of the aviation industry keeping to a net-zero emissions future.