Even allowing for the hopefully short-term reduction of airline traffic volumes due to the Covid-19 pandemic, carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions will triple by 2050, according to aviation consultancy Roland Berger. In fact, current annual levels of 1 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions had appeared likely to quadruple by 2050, but now emission levels are set to fall during 2020, followed by some “muted growth” anticipated for the next few years, according to a new study released by the company on Tuesday during the FIA Connect event.
However, according to project manager Nikhil Sachdeva, CO2 emissions are not the only challenging aspect of aviation’s environmental footprint. Factoring in other contaminants such as oxides from nitrogen, water vapor, sulfites, soot, contrails, and aviation-induced cloudiness, the sector’s impact could end up three times higher than that of CO2 alone by 2050.
In Roland Berger’s view, the industry needs to take an urgent and multi-pronged approach if will have any chance of achieving a widely shared stated objective of so-called net zero emissions in the next 30 years. The company has published a road map for the key steps that it advocates the industry follows.
First, explained Sachdeva, airlines must continue replacing older, less efficient aircraft in their fleets with new models like the Boeing 737 Max and Airbus A320neo, which deliver around a 15 percent reduction in fuel burn. He acknowledged that the immediate fallout from Covid has dampened fleet replacement plans but said that the industry cannot abandon the effort for long. The company estimates that the measure could deliver an overall 25 percent cut in emissions.
As a second step, Roland Berger said that authorities must reform air traffic management to make more efficient use of available airspace, both in terms of route and altitude optimization. While that could marginally increase fuel burn, the moves would contribute to a 10 percent overall reduction in emissions, said the consultancy.
The Roland Berger report spells out how the industry could achieve a 15 percent improvement from each of the following measures: optimizing flight trajectories; introducing battery-based electric aircraft for flights of up to 1,500 km (as long as they are recharged with renewable energy); and introducing hybrid-electric (with sustainable aviation fuel) and/or hydrogen-powered aircraft.
The company estimates that switching to sustainable aviation fuel for longer-haul flights could yield another 10 percent savings in emissions. That would leave another 10 percent portion of current emissions that would need to be nullified by paying for carbon offsets.
According to Roland Berger partner Uwe Weichenhain, hydrogen carries significant potential to improve aviation’s environmental performance if industry can overcome various challenges, such as cost and lack of infrastructure. In his view, hydrogen fuel cell-based propulsion systems are the most practical for aircraft seating fewer than 100 passengers, while hydrogen combustion systems will work best for larger aircraft.
Last week, the European Commission committed €300 billion to support a comprehensive, multi-industry program to boost the availability of so-called green hydrogen (i.e. produced in sustainable ways). As things stand, Weichenhain said there is insufficient capacity to produce enough green hydrogen for widespread aviation use, but he sees that situation changing after 2030, with prices coming down in the process.