Sustainable Aviation 

Most of us like a holiday. Jetting off to some warm sunny corner of the planet to explore, rest and recharge. For some this presents a conundrum, the desire to travel weighed against the environmental impact of air travel. This causes many to use alternative transport methods or avoid air travel altogether.  

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the industry ground to a halt overnight. Passenger numbers are now back on the rise, along with calls for the aviation industry to reduce its impact on the climate. The International Air Traffic Association (IATA) expects passenger numbers to return to, and even exceed, pre-pandemic numbers by 2024. More demand means more planes taking off each day. 

The industry has seen huge changes in recent decades. There are now 300 times more planes in the air since the 1950s, but interestingly, we haven’t seen a similar rise in CO2 emissions. Over this same period emissions have only increased by 7 times. This suggests that modern aircraft are already more efficient than their earlier counterparts. Fewer empty seats per flight, better designed, and larger aircraft all mean that the CO2 emissions per passenger are falling.

However, the aviation industry accounts for 2.5% of global CO2 emissions and 12% of all transport emissions, more can still be done.  

What is the aviation industry doing to decarbonise? 

There are several emerging innovations in the sector, some further along in their development than others. One being used right now is Sustainable Aviation Fuel. 

A Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) is fuel made from waste materials which meet certain sustainability criteria. The resources must be from waste materials and not cause any additional environmental harm such as diverting resources from food production, cutting down trees or using too much water.  There is an expansive list of suitable materials for making SAF, including used cooking oil and household waste – garden waste, clothing and non-recyclable bottles.

SAF is an exciting development for the aviation industry because it can be put into practice now. The nature of SAF allows it to be combined with traditional jet fuel and used in current engines with no remodelling required. Compared with fossil fuels, SAF reduces life cycle carbon emissions by up to 80%. This means the CO2 produced as the fuel is burned is almost offset by the CO2 taken from the atmosphere to grow the plants in the first place.  

Over 50 airlines are already using SAF and 100 million litres have been produced so far, fuelling around 450,000 flights. This only accounts for 1% of the global demand. However, there are enough waste materials to produce SAF on a much larger scale. The goal by 2025 is for five billion litres to be produced globally and used by two million flights. The hope is that this increases as the years go by until SAF is used in every flight.  

Airport Advancements

It’s not just the flights and planes that are getting a sustainable makeover, it’s the airports too. Melbourne airport took advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic and used the time to build a solar energy farm spanning 26 football pitches. The energy produced from this farm is enough to power all four of their terminal buildings and 15% of the whole airport’s energy requirements.

In the UK, Bristol Airport announced a switch to 100% renewable energy sources with 15% being produced by the airport itself using solar and air sourced heat pumps.  The airport aims to be net zero by 2025.  

Abu Dhabi international airport has been even more creative with its energy generation, by using their passengers’ footsteps. A sixteen square foot section of energy- harvesting flooring has been installed between two terminal buildings.

The technology from UK company Pavegen, harvests the energy from the eight thousand passengers that walk across it each day and converts the energy to electricity. This is used to power LED lighting in the walkway and provide a fun interactive way to engage passengers with the sustainability message. 

AI in aviation 

By using Artificial Intelligence we can identify inefficiencies in air traffic management and eliminate them. Reducing delays which in turn reduces the fuel which is wasted either from aircraft waiting on the tarmac or circling overhead waiting to land. The IATA hope that efficiency improvements could account for 3% of the overall reduction in carbon emissions over the next 30 years.  

These innovations are a huge step forward to making the aviation industry more sustainable. The global aviation industry is committed to becoming net zero by 2050. If these innovations take off, we can look forward to a guilt-free travel experience in the future.  

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