Evaluating the Potential of Green Aviation in 2022
Most discussions around green transportation center on road travel. Cars and trucks may see more everyday use, but they’re not the only source of vehicle emissions. If the world wants to achieve truly sustainable transit, it needs to address aviation as well.
The need for green aviation becomes increasingly critical as climate concerns grow more severe. Where does the industry fall today with this technology, and what does it need to improve? Here’s a closer look.
The Need for Green Aviation
More than 70 nations have set net-zero targets, aiming to halve emissions by 2030 and effectively eliminate them by 2050. That will require considerable improvements from many sectors, including aviation.
Transportation accounts for 29% of greenhouse gas emissions, making vehicles an important piece of the net-zero puzzle. Most of this comes from cars, but airplanes still contribute a significant amount. Aviation is the second-largest source, emitting 1 billion tons of CO2 annually.
Most aviation emissions come from passenger flights, but people have no control over their plane’s efficiency. Unlike road vehicles, the responsibility for green air travel falls almost entirely to airlines and plane manufacturers. Consequently, making the sector more sustainable will require broader, more disruptive actions.
Where Is Green Aviation Today?
Unfortunately, the industry has largely fallen short of its emissions targets. A recent report found that airlines have only met one of 50 climate targets since 2000. In some instances, businesses have adjusted or redefined their goals, while in others, they’ve ignored or dropped them entirely.
The industry has a long way to go, but air travel sustainability has improved over the past few years. Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which comes from waste products or plant material, has powered more than 370,000 flights since 2016. More than 45 airlines now use this low-carbon fuel in some capacity, and the world produced 100 million liters in 2021.
Airlines have also retired old planes faster than normal amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Consequently, fleets are modernizing more quickly, which brings fuel economy benefits. New models like the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787 use 20%-25% less fuel than their predecessors.
What Challenges Remain?
The aviation industry’s mostly lackluster sustainability improvements are partly due to the significant obstacles they face. Green air travel is difficult, requiring ways around several substantial challenges before it’s economically and environmentally viable. Here are a few of the most prominent of these roadblocks.
SAF, which can work in current planes without modification, is an important step forward, but aircraft eventually need to be entirely emissions-free. That means adopting either battery-electric or hydrogen fuel cell craft, but both technologies have a range problem.
Current hydrogen prototypes only have ranges within 450 miles, carrying just a few passengers. If electric road vehicles are any indication, battery-electric options with today’s technology likely have similar limits. That’s enough for a small domestic flight, but it's far from sufficient for most air travel.
Commercial flights are already prone to delays and layovers, and shorter-ranged planes would worsen that issue. Aircraft would have to make more stops, making air travel longer and less convenient. Consequently, airlines will be unlikely to adopt zero-emissions planes until they can rival the range of fossil fuel alternatives.
Green aviation is also expensive. SAF made from waste oils costs at least 50% more than conventional jet fuel. Unfortunately, these fuels also get more expensive the greener they become. More sustainable, agricultural waste-derived biofuels cost three times as much as fossil fuel, and entirely carbon-neutral, hydrogen-derived versions could be four times as much.
Transitioning to zero-emissions aircraft will likely be similarly expensive. Battery-electric and hydrogen technology may reduce fuel costs over time, but they require buying entirely new planes. Upgrading fleets is already costly, so airlines will likely be hesitant to make these even larger purchases.
These expenses are particularly challenging in 2022 as the industry recovers from COVID-19. Travel restrictions are loosening, but airlines are still dealing with economic losses from closed borders and travel fears at the pandemic.
The industry could encounter another issue as green aviation gains momentum: limited resources. With SAF leading the sustainable air travel movement, demand for the feedstocks that produce this fuel will rise. Getting enough plant matter to make these biofuels could be challenging as the world tries to feed a growing population.
Farms would have to expand to meet the demand for fuel and food, but available farmland is relatively scarce. Agriculture also brings resource concerns of its own, as it already uses 69% of global freshwater.
Similar challenges may impede the growth of hydrogen aircraft. Hydrogen fuel must use renewable energy to extract hydrogen to be truly green. With the rest of the world also increasing its reliance on renewables, this infrastructure will have to expand far faster to sustain green hydrogen growth.
How Can the Industry Move Forward?
These challenges are imposing, but green aviation is far from impossible. Several changes can help the industry accelerate its adoption of sustainable technologies.
SAF can fuel existing aircraft, so airlines should start using it in most, if not all, flights. Hydrogen and battery-electric planes will provide a more sustainable long-term alternative, but they’ll remain inaccessible for a few years. Companies must use SAF in the meantime to reduce emissions and meet upcoming climate goals.
Hydrogen and other renewable technologies will get more affordable and efficient over time. Some experts predict hydrogen could power a 3,000-kilometer flight as early as 2035. Airlines could slowly replace their fleets as these aircraft emerge, starting with cheaper, smaller planes to offset the costs.
Government incentives can help, too. Tax breaks and similar savings can account for the expenses of going green, and airlines could be penalized for failing to meet their climate goals.
The Aviation Industry Must Do More to Meet Climate Goals
Wide-scale green aviation still has a long way to go, but it’s feasibly closer than some airlines’ actions suggest. Several challenges remain, but the aviation industry can become more sustainable, significantly reducing emissions within a few years. Meeting the 2050 target will take considerable adjustments, but it’s not impossible.
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