Cleaner Aviation on the Horizon

October 12, 2021

The transportation sector is the biggest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, including passenger travel, trucking, maritime, aviation, and more. Momentum is building for cleaner transportation solutions across all vehicle types. Today, let’s zoom in on aviation, a sector that is expected to surge with growth in passenger air travel and air freight. According to a 2019 EPA report, aircrafts accounted for 10% of the transportation sector’s emissions and 3% of global carbon emissions. And, carbon emissions from commercial aircraft are expected to triple by 2050.

Aviation emissions should be considered

The aviation industry is particularly reliant on fossil fuels, and solutions for decarbonizing aviation fuel are not simple because of the immense amount of energy needed to lift passengers and cargo in the air and carry them for long distances.

Many airlines have commenced their efforts to become more sustainable. Delta Airlines announced that they are spending $1 billion to become carbon neutral by 2030, JetBlue made a goal to become carbon neutral by 2040, and United Airlines made a similar goal by 2050. They aren’t the only ones considering the consequences of aviation emissions, either, as consumers can now browse Google Flights to compare the emissions impact of different flight options.

The big question that remains is how airlines are going to accomplish their goals. There are two efforts to answer this question: making planes more efficient by improving aerodynamics and making them lighter, along with switching to lower-emission fuels made from renewable sources.

Technology is developing to make flights zero-emission

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), is a renewable fuel that is chemically similar to jet fuel. Depending on the processes used to create sustainable aviation fuel, it can reduce lifecycle emissions and even remove more carbon dioxide from the air than the process emits. Like other biofuels, SAF can be made from recycled materials such as corn grain, oilseeds, algae, fats, oils, greases, forestry residues, municipal solid waste streams, wet wastes, or dedicated energy crops.

Overcoming obstacles in achieving zero emissions for aviation requires investments

Airplanes can already fly on sustainable aviation fuel, but only certain companies have the safety certification to use it. Currently, only 0.1% of flights use sustainable aviation fuels globally. Boeing plans to have all their planes capable of using entirely sustainable aviation fuel by 2030.

Switching to sustainable aviation fuel requires not just planes, but also the availability of SAF in large-scale quantities, and the infrastructure to support the sustainable aviation fuel in airports, both of which will require investments and incentives to help the industry switch to cleaner fuels faster.

And, sustainable aviation fuel is by no means the only solution. Airbus is in the process of developing a hydrogen-fueled zero-emission jet for medium-distance flights. United Airlines is partnering on a project to explore carbon capture technology that would remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

If these trends are any indication, aircraft and engine manufacturers will continue developing more efficient propulsion technologies and creative solutions so we can take to the skies in an environmentally safe manner. While it seems that cleaner aviation is on the horizon, incentives and investments will likely be needed to help reduce the costs, further research and development for cleaner aviation solutions, and increase the supply of cleaner aviation fuels.