Opinion & Analysis

A bird’s eye view on the sustainability journey in aviation

By Adiel Mambara

As global temperatures increase, the negative impacts of climate change on people and the environment become more severe and adaptation becomes difficult, expensive and in some cases, impossible.

Limiting global warming to 1.5°C, rather than 2°C or more, is projected to reduce the negative impacts of climate, and various reports across several international bodies are signalling a need for greater urgency in achieving carbon emissions reductions.

We seem to have reached a political crossroad as far as the climate change discussions are concerned. Until recently, it was not uncommon for climate activists to ask, ‘what will it take to make enough people in places where power centres reside, sit up and take notice?’ We now seem to have reached that point.

In the last few months, there has been virtually no corner of the world that has not reported an extreme weather event that has required a disaster response. As the NASA global temperature database makes clear, almost all the hottest years on record have occurred since the beginning of the twenty-first century, and erratic weather effects are observably increasing around the world.

Governments have begun acknowledging the need for greater urgency in achieving emission reductions and the focus on the high-profile goals of a 45% reduction on 2010 levels by 2030 and ‘net-zero’ by 2050 has is now a reality.

In the recent COP 26 summit held in the United Kingdom, myriad actors have rhetorically taken on board the need to plan to decarbonise more rapidly with the aim of achieving ‘net-zero’ status. They pledged commitment to pursuing efforts to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C by 2050. However, there is concern ,especially in civil society, that ‘net-zero’ by mid-century is but another tactic of delay and deferral that in practice allows governments and corporate entities to continue with practices that perpetuate the present patterns of pollution and ecological degradation and destruction as if there were no real emergency.

One industry that has widened the debate on how to contribute to lowering emissions is the aviation industry. This issue of Flying has been a controversial and disputed subject within the field of climate change. The main issues have been mainly on fuel burn and the emissions of CO2.

I think it is important to set the record straight. There is often a disconnect that exists between the role flying plays in our personal and collective emissions. Overseas travel, for instance, represents about 12% of an individual’s carbon footprint and in comparison, to driving a petrol or diesel car which is 29%.

Commercial aviation’s climate change impact is complex, reflecting the variety of emissions from flying operations at the surface up to cruise altitudes as high as 45,000 feet, across continents and oceans, and over varied time spans. 

Data from several studies suggest that aviation overall accounts for only 2.5% of global carbon dioxide (CO2), 1.9% of greenhouse gas emissions (which includes all greenhouse gases, not only CO2), and 3.5% of ‘effective radiative forcing’ – a closer measure of its impact on warming (David et al.2020). Aviation’s contribution to climate change is often less than people think. It’s currently a relatively small chunk of emissions compared to other sectors. 

The aviation industry recognises the need to address the global challenge of climate change and collaborative work has begun. The Associated government agencies together with all stakeholders in the aviation industry have already embarked on several strategies that have included pursuing efficiency gains, carbon offsetting, introducing cutting edge propulsion methods, reviewing global market-based measure tools, advancing the use of Electric and Hydrogen aircraft, and most importantly, accelerating the use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) by airlines.

There is strong affixation towards a ‘technofix’ and technocratic dimension solution to policy framing by governments that trickles down to different organizational strategies including the aviation sector.

‘Technofix’ does not mean the use of technology only, but clearly, there is recognition that any response to climate and ecological breakdown will involve technological change. ‘Technofix’ means presenting technology as the solution to a problem and while in real policy circles it rarely rises to the status of the only solution, there is a typical tendency to place primary focus on technology.

In aviation, the technology roadmap to achieve sustainable aviation is not easy and clear cut. One of the main challenges already being faced in the aviation industry is the scalability and supply of biofuels namely SAF.

Biofuels have been called a game-changing technological innovation for decreasing fuel costs and de-carbonising the aviation sector. We know they work. Test flights have proven this, both from military and civilian aviation stakeholders. Sustainable aviation fuels (advanced biofuels and electro-fuels) have the potential to significantly reduce aircraft emissions. However, this potential is largely untapped as such fuels represent only 0.05% of total jet fuel consumption (EC,2020).

Sub-Saharan Africa is seen as one of the main expansion areas to produce biofuel feedstock for aviation. However, Biomass fuel is a limited resource, and the aviation sector will further add to demand from other end-user applications, especially in regions where the bio-economy is playing an important part in the transition towards a greener economy.

A report commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) South Africa, the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA), and Boeing has found that there is a small, but not insignificant, potential to produce alternative aviation fuels in sub-Saharan Africa in compliance with the robust sustainability requirements of the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials (RSB). Sub-Saharan Africa could potentially contribute between 30% and 90% of projected long-term global alternative aviation fuels.

Fuel suppliers who have taken the lead in advancing SAF face challenges of making the transition from demonstration to commercial-scale production of SAF, due to commercial risks and difficulties in attracting investors.  The uncertain future demand forms the basis of an environment that is detrimental to investments from first movers into the market. Consequently, it becomes necessary to find a way to pool risk between the different various stakeholders of the aviation industry.

This is in stark contrast to the US government that recently took a different approach by incentivizing fuel suppliers to produce at least 11 billion liters of SAF by 2030. This readily becomes a line–of–least resistance approach by different governments – with some governments selling the idea to airlines that they are willing to give full support in helping airlines towards the overall goal to achieve net-zero by 2050, however, the current lack of global consensus with regards to what constitutes sustainability creates hesitation and disincentives for the industry to commit to certain technology options.

Change is not possible without public investment and partnerships with the private sector and it’s a necessity to have internationally agreed standards across the board. The Director-General of the International Airport Transport Association (IATA) stated that “Governments must lead with incentives – with more carrot and less stick. And the most important area for immediate concern is SAF”

Other strategies around a move to transition to fully electric propulsion aircraft could lead to zero onboard emissions and very high levels of energy efficiency and noise reduction. Policymakers around the world are starting to show interest in electric planes and Norway for example announced that all its short-haul flights will be electric by 2040.

At the time of writing, there were more than 150 electric aircraft development programs around the world, although most of them focus on the urban air taxi, also known as passenger drone, and general aviation (defined as civil non-commercial aviation), i.e., small aircraft for private transport.

 Whilst technology has many advantages, there is also the danger that when the dominant focus is only on technology, this tends to gloss over a whole host of issues, and the list of issues can be extensive: whether a technology currently exists, whether it is possible in principle, whether it can be scaled, whether resources (real and financial) can be organized to expedite it, whether it can be commercialized, and whether all of these apply within relevant timelines. Pretending the opposite resembles false labeling and risks sending the debate in the wrong direction.

We are living in a time of exception. A time when the existing order is open to question’ (Gills, 2020). The double conjuncture of climate change and global pandemic, speak to a Great Implosion, and while the pandemic will eventually end, responses to it have created a precedent. The overwhelming weight of evidence regarding our collective environmental consequences as a species suggests that the common sense of the last forty years is now forced to confront its own complacency

 Compelling action is now urgently needed by all—from governments, airlines, corporations, communities, households, and individuals. We need to believe ‘deep restoration’ is possible and we need to act like it is possible. Maybe this is wishful thinking, but without it, our nightmares may become realities.

(Zimbabwe-born Mambara, who has a demonstrated history of working in the airlines/aviation industry, is currently the country manager (UK and Ireland) for Royal Brunei Airlines.)

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