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The airline industry takes off towards a greener future

The aviation sector has been heavily criticised in recent years for its impact on the environment and its contribution to global warming. It contributes to almost 6% of global warming, i.e. more than digital technology, and air travel alone accounts for 2.4% of global CO2 emissions. This figure rises to 5.3% in France, reflecting the scale of the problem. The sector is facing many challenges and must therefore work more than seriously on its sustainable transition if it wishes to improve its image.

A challenging path to a greener future

Actors in the aviation sector are aware of their impact on the environment and are all determined to drastically reduce it. However, this requires significant financial resources as well as the development of innovative technologies and solutions, which can slow down the industry's sustainable transition.

And yet the International Air Transport Association (Iata), which federates the vast majority of airlines, and the aviation industry have committed to reducing net CO2 emissions to zero by 2050. This ambitious goal reflects the awareness of the sector's actors and their strong commitment.

This goes hand in hand with the European Union's planned climate change legislation, which requires airlines to pay for the CO2 emissions of their intra-European flights. It is a decision that has not gone down well with the industry, with an alliance of airlines and airports calling for changes to the legislation, arguing that it will make them less competitive with their non-EU competitors.

The alliance, which has nearly 20 members, including all the subsidiaries of Lufthansa, Air France-KLM and major airports such as Frankfurt and Schipol in Amsterdam, says that long-haul flights via non-European hubs would not be subject to the same associated costs, which could lead to a transfer of business to these carriers.

The alliance categorically rejects a paraffin tax and proposes that the environmental surcharge should be based on the entire air route, not just on feeder flights bringing passengers from the EU to international hubs such as Istanbul or Dubai. It does, however, support the EU's 'Fit for 55' climate package, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

Aviation also suffers from a poor image due to its elitist nature. Indeed, 50% of air emissions come from the top 1% of travellers. Moreover, one in ten planes that take off in France is private, and half of them fly less than 500 km, according to Transport & Environment, which brings together European NGOs from the sector.

And these private jets are 5 to 14 times more polluting than commercial aircraft, since they can emit in five hours the amount of CO2 emitted by an average French person for a whole year, according to a study by Transport & Environment in May 2021. The study also points out that between 2005 and 2019, CO2 emissions from private jets in Europe have increased by 31%.

Carbon footprints have been the focus of much debate recently. In addition, an investigation by the BBC points the finger at Google Flight, which is accused of minimising the carbon footprint of the routes it offers. According to the British media, the estimates are up to two times lower than the real values. The reason for this is an update to its calculation method, which no longer includes aircraft drag, even though drag has a significant impact on the environment on a large scale.

Numerous tracks of work under study

Solutions to decarbonise the sector are numerous, notably through technological and infrastructure improvements. The engine manufacturer CFM, a joint venture between GE and Safran, is working with its Rise project on technologies for a future engine available in 2035 that will reduce fuel consumption by over 20%. Other actors are also working on a carbon capture and emissions trading system.

While there are many carbon offsetting schemes in existence at the moment, these are heavily criticised as simply displacing the problem. It is not a question of reducing carbon emissions but simply of planting trees to compensate for them. This is not considered to be an effective solution, as it takes several years before the trees in question are fully grown.

Another area of development is hybrid electric propulsion, in which an electric motor provides additional energy to the combustion engine during certain phases of flight, such as take-off. In the longer term, research is being carried out into fuel cells to power an electric motor without the need for batteries, since the latter are unsuitable for airliners because of their weight.

However, it is conceivable that 100% electric aircraft could become a reality in the years to come. Alice, the first 100% electric aircraft designed by Eviation Aircraft, an Israeli company, recently made its first flight. Launched from Washington's Grant County International Airport, it travelled at an altitude of 3,500 feet for eight minutes. A rather short flight, but a real technological feat. According to the manufacturer, although no commercial launch date has yet been announced, it has already received orders for 125 aircraft. Eventually, Eviation wants to offer three options: a nine-passenger aircraft, a six-passenger luxury aircraft and an e-cargo version.

The industry is also working on hydrogen-powered aircraft, a project supported in particular by Airbus, which is aiming for the first aircraft to enter service by 2035, probably a short-haul aircraft with fewer than 100 seats. The problem is that hydrogen is almost four times more voluminous than paraffin, which makes it impossible to use for long-haul routes.

While all these avenues of work have great potential, many of them will not be applicable to commercial aircraft for many years or even decades to come. Actors in the sector are therefore focusing on sustainable aviation fuel, also known as SAF. It is notable that SAF emits 65% less CO2 than paraffin. The production of this new fuel is progressing very quickly, since it was only 25 million litres in 2019 against 100 million in 2021 according to the Iata.

According to the Association, sustainable fuels are "on the threshold of exponential capacity and production growth". With an intermediate target of 30 billion litres per year by 2030, or less than 10% of needs, in sight. It is now urgent to intensify the production of SAF because aviation will consume 450 billion litres of SAF per year by the middle of the century, according to Iata calculations. Willie Walsh, Iata's director general, is calling on governments to put in place "production incentives" comparable to those that have boosted the development of renewable energy.

Obviously, the integration of sustainable fuel, which is more expensive to produce, will have a cost for airlines which will be reflected in ticket prices. All of this has an effect on demand and contributes to a more limited increase in traffic, thus creating a virtuous circle in the end. Air France has in fact increased the price of its tickets to pay for sustainable aviation fuel. The airline specifies that the amount will vary between 1 and 8 euros in economy and between 1.50 and 24 euros in business, depending on the distance.

An innovation centre has also been set up in the UK, called the Energy Innovation Centre (EIC), with the aim of paving the way for the development and market introduction of SAF. The EIC includes the Sustainable Aviation Fuels Innovation Centre (SAF-IC), a unique UK facility that will test and certify new sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), and the Translational Energy Research Centre (TERC), which will include pilot-scale production facilities to investigate different methods of producing SAF.

For its part, ADEME highlights three levers that would enable the sector to decarbonise effectively, namely the energy efficiency of aircraft, the reduction of the carbon intensity of the energy used and traffic moderation. Baptiste Fabert Perrisin, interim director of ADEME, points out that "it is possible to reduce CO2 emissions from flights departing from France by 75% if we activate all these decarbonisation levers".

Biomimicry is also inspiring the sector's professionals, as Airbus is inspired by birds, and more particularly albatrosses, to develop a plane with folding wings, thus reducing turbulence and saving up to 10% of fuel. SWISS, meanwhile, has become the first airline in the world to fly an aircraft whose fuselages and engine nacelle are treated with AeroSHARK, a biomimetic application that seeks to mimic the skin of birds. This would reduce annual fuel consumption by over 4,800 tonnes and total annual carbon dioxide emissions from the Boeing 777 fleet by up to 15,200 tonnes.

Airlines' green initiatives

Many companies are taking the lead and announcing sustainable development strategies, each more ambitious than the last. ITA Airways, for example, aims to become Europe's greenest airline with 75% new generation aircraft in its fleet by 2025. In addition, ITA Airways has signed a memorandum of understanding with Airbus to collaborate in the field of urban air mobility in Italy to develop the ecosystem around the launch of the CityAirbus NextGen electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft. 

easyJet also intends to lead the way in decarbonising air transport with a target of zero net emissions by 2050. To achieve this, the airline is relying on technologies under development, namely hydrogen, carbon removal and sustainable fuel. At present, easyJet is relying on the means currently available to it, starting with fleet renewal and the introduction of more energy-efficient aircraft.

It will invest more than 20 billion dollars over the next few years to acquire 168 Airbus 320neo aircraft, which are on average 15% more fuel-efficient, as well as millions of pounds to equip itself with new software, with the key to this optimisation of descents being "substantial" reductions in carbon emissions.

Royal Jordanian promotes the same ambition as easyJet and to achieve this goal, the airline has signed an agreement with IATA to join a large number of airlines that now use the IATA Environmental Assessment Programme (IEnvA). The IEnvA is a system that identifies environmental impact and risk and provides the tools to verify the airline's commitment to sustainability. The programme covers all aspects of sustainability, from CO2 emissions and single-use plastics to cabin waste and wildlife trafficking.

Other airlines are opting for carbon offsetting, such as Iberia with its 'CO2labora' programme, which allows customers to support two certified climate projects, one in Guatemala and one in Peru. The footprint calculator takes into account four variables, including weather, operational efficiency, cabin class and aircraft type.

For its part, British Airways is offering new offset options to passengers, including carbon offsets that are issued by projects that remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or carbon cycle.

According to the company, "both carbon offsets and carbon removals are important to achieving global climate goals, but UN climate scientists expect that over time there will be a gradual transition to supporting more carbon removals as technology solutions, verification standards and policy support mechanisms mature."

Lufthansa Group airlines, including Lufthansa, SWISS, Austrian Airlines and Brussels Airlines, are offering a new tariff that already includes full CO2 offsetting in the price. For the first time, 80% of the offsetting is done through high-quality climate protection projects and 20% through the use of sustainable aviation fuels.

At the same time, Air Canada, Air France-KLM, easyJet, IAG, Lufthansa, Latam, Virgin Atlantic and Airbus are banking on the direct capture of CO2 from the air in order to compensate for some of the greenhouse gas emissions they produce. However, this solution is complex and does not completely eliminate CO2, as it involves filtering and removing CO2 emissions directly from the air using high-powered fans before storing it in underground tanks.

Airlines are also counting on the emergence of sustainable fuels to decarbonise their business. Finnair has signed a new fuel sales agreement with Gevo, a renewable fuel producer, for 7 million gallons per year of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) for five years from 2027. 

Finnair has set ambitious emission reduction targets: by the end of 2025, we intend to halve the 2019 net emission level and reach carbon neutrality by the end of 2045 at the latest. SAF plays an important role in achieving these goals. 

Eveliina Huurre, Senior Vice President Sustainability at Finnair

The Air France-KLM group is doing the same, announcing the signing of two contracts for the supply of 1.6 million tonnes of sustainable aviation fuel, with Finnish supplier Neste and American DG Fuels LLC. This represents 3% of the 10% SAF incorporation expected by 2030. And the company specifies in a press release that "discussions are underway with other suppliers with a view to progressively establishing a diversified network capable of meeting the needs for sustainable fuel at a global level".

In addition, the world's first transatlantic flight powered solely by sustainable aviation fuel will depart from London's Heathrow Airport this year for JFK in New York. The flight is also described as 'net carbon neutral' because its organisers will also buy carbon credits linked to projects that will absorb equivalent volumes of CO2 in the future. The 100% SAF flight is intended to show the potential for decarbonisation on long-haul flights.

A mobilisation that concerns us all

Airlines and all those involved in the aviation sector are working hard every day to build a greener future for their industry. However, they are not the only ones who have the power to make aviation more sustainable, governments and travellers alike have their part to play in this transition.

While the French government has recently decided to ban domestic flights when a train alternative of less than 2.5 hours is available, it is now considering limiting private jet flights in the face of the climate crisis. For the measure to be effective and have a greater impact, French Transport Minister Clément Beaune would like it to be applied at European level.

In addition, the French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne has been called upon by some thirty associations in an open letter to request that Roissy be capped at 440,000 movements per year, as has just been decided at Amsterdam airport. This action would help combat climate change, as Roissy accounts for almost 4% of French CO2 emissions.

In addition to imposing this cap at Amsterdam airport, one of Europe's largest hubs, the Netherlands has also approved an increase in the government's tax on airline tickets. Since 1 January, the tax on a single ticket from the Netherlands has risen from €7.95 to €28.58. A considerable increase that will be used "to make aviation more sustainable and reduce the environmental impact" as well as to encourage more environmentally friendly travel within the country, facilitating and financing more sustainable transport, such as the train.

For his part, Augustin de Romanet, CEO of Aéroports de Paris, stresses that "people should be invited to be more reasonable in air travel". These comments may seem surprising from the CEO, but they make sense because, as he explains, "we need to be as reasonable as possible in our behaviour for the transition period, which will last 20 or 30 years." According to him, a decrease in air traffic would have little impact on the sector since he places the quality of the reception before the quantity of passengers received.

The French government also intends to take part in the decarbonisation of the aviation sector, which it sees as "an obligation", with a budget of 435 million euros from 2023. Many projects will be financed with this large sum, such as the production of the first low-carbon aircraft by 2030. The Ministry of Transport is currently working on "the programming is being defined with the industry".

 

While the airline industry has come under fire in recent years for its environmental impact, its representatives are far from standing idly by. Between the development of sustainable fuels, work on electric or hydrogen powered aircraft, and the introduction of carbon taxes and offsets, the industry is doing all it can to minimise this much maligned impact. It remains to be seen in the coming years whether the many decarbonisation targets will be met and whether the sector can ever really be seen as a more or less sustainable mode of transport.

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