IATA, FIATA, TIACA, and airlines all repeatedly claim that aviation will be climate-neutral by 2050 – in other words: passenger and cargo airlines will fly net zero. None of the people touting this goal like a mantra for several years will presumably still be working in a management position by then and will therefore not have to justify their current forecasts if that target is not reached. Yet, it increasingly looks like that will be the case.
It is as if the industry is spinning in a hamster wheel: “By 2050, we'll be climate neutral,” can be read in almost every press release and heard repeatedly from leading aviation managers. But are these proclamations real, or just a sedative pill? At any rate, the facts speak a different language, contradicting IATA & Co. According to all available data, air traffic will at least double, and more likely triple, over the next 26 years. With 680% growth from 1960 to 2018, it is currently responsible for 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions. The climate effect is further amplified by contrails, in which ice crystals form around the emitted exhaust gases of aircraft, keeping them in the air for a long period of time. They prevent the re-radiation of solar rays from earth into orbit, adding to global warming.
Will high-tech solutions solve the problem?
What do associations and airlines believe is the solution? They recommend “high-tech concepts” to achieve the 2050 target. These include SAF/synthetic fuels, the development of less kerosene-consumptive aircraft engines, fleet modernization programs, the construction of battery-powered aircraft, or a completely new generation of hydrogen airplanes, such as those announced by Airbus for 2035.
Also of interest in this context, is United's approach: investing five million USD in the Californian bioengineering company, Viridos, that produces sustainable aviation fuel from microalgae. Algae is a natural resource that does not get into conflict with agriculture or other food production areas.
No doubt, when combined, all these efforts will help to reduce greenhouse gas emissions stemming from aviation, but only to a limited extent. Batteries, for example, have a much lower energy density than kerosene, and are therefore much too heavy for large planes. They will probably only be used in very small aircraft on short routes, such as those recently announced by United. Hydrogen, on the other hand, requires much more space than kerosene to store the same amount of energy. This does not necessarily make airplanes economical if there are no passengers or cargo shipments accommodated in the rear fuselage, because that space is filled with hydrogen tanks.
High hurdles dampen hope
Meanwhile, more and more scientists are warning against relying primarily on the development of new technologies to protect the climate, thus challenging the industry’s mantra. The hurdles to be overcome are still too high, warns mobility researcher and critical voice, Stefan Gössling, for example. He is a professor at the Swedish Linnaeus University of Kalmar.
Regulators must step in
The scientific community recommends leaving well-trodden paths and supporting (not fighting) government efforts to impose stiff regulations on aviation, leading to greater public acceptance of the industry, and helping airlines to fly into an eco-friendly future. However, state interventions are unpopular because they lead to price hikes, making the entire air traffic ecosystem more expensive. This is illustrated by experts from the Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change, who presented calculation models. Starting from the base year 2022 and a prescribed gradual annual price increase for greenhouse gas emissions, by 2050, airlines would have to pay around 800 euros to release one single ton of CO2. This would result in air travel becoming more costly, leading to reduced demand, the scholars forecast. One liter of kerosene, when completely burned by an aircraft engine, results in 3.11 kilograms of greenhouse gasses. A flight from Amsterdam to New York burns around 60,000 liters of kerosene. This is the equivalent of 186,000 tons of CO2. Expressed in euros or dollars, this will result in an avalanche of costs for the airlines, provided the CO2 pricing model advocated by Mercator is implemented. For air freight, a shift to ocean and rail is thus on the horizon.
Are deserts the new Eldorado?
When looking at synthetic fuels, large areas are needed to achieve the 2050 targeted feed-in quota. According to the Mercator researchers, the most cost-effective, space-saving, and environmentally friendly option for producing the necessary green electricity, would be solar power plants. However, even for the fuel supply needed today, these would require around 140,000 km² of space - roughly the combined area of Belgium, the Netherlands and Ireland. The best locations for these huge solar farms would be uninhabited desert areas, such as the Sahara. However, this raises severe security issues and requires reliable transport routes, let alone huge investments. Yet, if the implementation of such large-scale projects is not kicked-off immediately, the production of synthetic fuels in the quantities required by air transport to become carbon neutral, is an illusion, say the Mercator scientists.
There is no known reaction from IATA or other aviation organizations to these findings.
We welcome and publish comments from all authenticated users
Write a comment
Hugo Duchemin (Monday, 20 March 2023 09:39)
Great analysis Heiner! Regarding H2-based SAF production and United's approach, there are indeed technologies that can produce over 5x as much H2 with the same amount of electrical power compared to conventional electrolysis. They are described by Hydrogen Europe in their Pyrolysis Report. Biomass, available worldwide, is a major feedstock for them. With this improved productivity, we don't need to move solar farms into the desert, but can operate agrivoltaics near airports, as demonstrated by Cochin International Airport in India's state of Kerala. Cochin produces more renewable energy than they consume, making them better than net zero for that part. Apply the ITEAL study of Berlin-Brandenburg Aerospace Allianz to Cochin, and you have a breakthrough in SAF availability.
Markus Flacke (Tuesday, 21 March 2023 18:52)
Congratulations to your report "Aviation Climate Lies" published last weekend, which actually deals refreshingly different and critical with the topic Aviation and Sustainabilty.
Business Development BU AirCargo Logistics, FRA E/L