Aviation industry continues its green drive despite the pandemic
As international air travel ramps up following the COVID-19 pandemic, Saudi Arabia hosted the inaugural Future Aviation Forum this week in Riyadh. The two-day event was an opportunity for regional government and business leaders to meet international CEOs and regulators, as the industry aims to resolve issues arising from the health crisis and shape the future of air travel.
The Kingdom aims to generate around $100 billion in investment in its aviation sector and make Saudi Arabia a global aviation hub by 2030. The General Authority of Civil Aviation, under its National Aviation Sector Strategy, plans to increase air connectivity to 250 destinations, reaching 330 million passengers, and double air cargo capacity to 4.5 million tons by the end of the decade. The Kingdom also plans to launch a new national airline to complement its existing carriers, and build a new international airport in Riyadh, as well as eight new regional airports.
The global aerospace market fell to around $300 billion in 2020 due to the pandemic. However, the market is expected to grow from $300 billion two years ago to $430 billion in 2025, at an annual rate of 7.7 percent.
However, as the aviation industry recovers, it needs to keep an eye on how to make its business greener.
The aviation industry is making great innovative strides in this area. Moves to improve CO2 efficiency in recent years have halved the amount of fuel used per flight compared to 1990. This has been achieved through technological advancement, such as lighter planes, as well as operational and infrastructure improvements.
However, overall emissions from aviation have continued to rise, as the volume of air traffic — both passenger and cargo — has lifted due to rising populations and incomes, as well as the globalization of business. Most growth has come from emerging economies, as more people become prosperous, their appetite to travel the world has increased.
To rise to the challenge, the industry has developed an Aviation Climate Action Framework to find a balance between economic growth through travel, while the sector reduces its climate impact.
Technological innovation is a key pillar of the ACAF framework. For example, each new generation of aircraft produced now is roughly 15 percent to 20 percent more fuel efficient. Airplane manufacturers invest around $15 billion a year on efficiency research.
Sustainable aviation fuels are another area where the industry is making progress. The development of alternative aviation fuels, such as biofuel blends, could be key to sustainable air travel. Using alternative fuels could reduce CO2 emissions by around 80 percent compared to fossil fuels, without significant changes to fuel supply systems or engines.
Another key pillar of the ACAF framework is operational and infrastructure improvements. The aviation industry is working hard to make current fleets more efficient by using new air traffic control techniques to cut emissions. For example, landing using a continuous descent into an airport saves about 150kg of CO2 per flight, while adding wingtip devices to an aircraft can reduce fuel use by 4 percent.
Also, airports are investing in offsetting schemes to become carbon neutral, by switching to vehicles with alternative fuels and low-emission technology. Many airports have also installed solar panels and other alternative energy sources to power terminal buildings.
The aviation industry clearly faces unique emissions challenges as the world moves toward its net-zero targets over the coming 10 to 20 years. Without action, the industry would contribute to significantly higher global CO2 emissions by 2050 and could face restrictions that could hurt its revenues and jobs.
Decarbonization is a key business priority for the airline industry, as it implements environmentally sustainable practices. Flying isn’t likely to get to zero emissions anytime soon, but it can shrink its carbon footprint by other means.
United Airlines made history in June 2019 when the US carrier operated the world’s most eco-friendly flight, by using a 30/70 mix of low-carbon sustainable aviation fuel, produced by Boston-based World Energy, and traditional jet fuel. Also, investing in renewable energy projects such as wind farms can provide carbon offsets for the aviation industry. Some airlines also allow passengers to purchase carbon offsets.
Aviation continues its drive to create a more sustainable industry. This is impressive considering the financial strains faced by the sector over the last two years because of the pandemic and the travel restrictions the health crisis caused.
At around the same time as the UN COP26 international climate meeting in Glasgow last October, the International Air Transport Association committed to carbon-neutral airline growth from 2021, with a 50 percent reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050.
This pledge brings air transport in line with the objectives of the Paris agreement to limit global warming to 1.5°C. To succeed, it will require the coordinated efforts of the entire industry — airlines, airports, air navigation service providers, manufacturers — and significant government support.
The aviation sector is moving toward a more sustainable path, despite being confronted with significant obstacles in recent years. This resilient industry seems determined to address climate change and contribute to a green planet.
• Fuad Al-Zayer is an independent energy consultant with expertise in energy transition, digitization, and innovation. He is the former Head of the Data Services Department at OPEC and a former Global Coordinator of the JODI Data Transparency Initiative at the IEF.