In 2015, the Paris Accords declared a battle against climate change. One of the main goals of the Accords was to maintain a temperature change that would not exceed 2 degrees Celsius. To achieve this goal, countries participating in the agreements were urged to commit to achieving a net-zero carbon emission status by 2050.
In essence, a net-zero carbon emission world means that everything would have to change – from the abandonment of fossil fuels and the introduction of green-energy-powered cars to increased carbon taxes and the adoption of completely new personal and family lifestyles. Clearly, the aviation industry would have to change, as well. But how?
Aviation accounts for roughly 5% of total global warming, with 2.4% coming from the industry’s CO2 emissions. In order for the aviation industry to actively participate in the global effort to reduce the collective carbon footprint, it would have to invest significant resources in the development of revolutionary technologies, with the backing of national and international policymakers. The good news is that a variety of evidence suggests that this is actually happening. Ironically, one of the central catalysts for change is the COVID-19 pandemic.
COVID-19 as Disruptor
The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the global aviation industry to its very core. In simplistic terms, people just stopped flying. Airlines were in serious jeopardy, and so were millions of jobs. As an entire industry was brought to its knees, governments worldwide realized they had to step in and provide airlines with financial liquidity required for their survival.
Almost as soon as the pandemic began, prominent figures began calling for government-airline agreements to include a commitment to the reduction of carbon emissions, as a condition for financial aid. In late 2020, the OECD issued a report that analyzed the support provided to airlines. According to the report, the COVID-19 disruption has the power potentially curb the aviation industry’s sustainability investments, due to lack of funds. Therefore, the report states that the support provided to airlines could and should be used as incentive to promote the industry’s end-to-end sustainability – from aircrafts to airports. This recommendation rests on the basic assumption that this incentive is crucial for actual sustainability progress. But more importantly, it recognizes that sustainability is the key to the future stability of the entire aviation industry.
Green Winds of Change
Policy change and business investments are clear indicators of industry-level change – and the aviation industry’s approach to sustainability is no different.
As far as policy is concerned, the 2021 COP26 in Glasgow proved essential in understanding the future of aviation sustainability. COP26 issued a declaration, which was signed by 25 countries, that introduces the International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition. The coalition commits to upholding the aviation industry to the 2050 net-zero emission goal, via a myriad of strategies – from investing in new aviation fuels to developing novel aircraft technologies. This declaration was warmly embraced by IATA.
Technology is Key
Policymakers are recognizing the key role technology is playing in making zero-carbon aviation a reality – and the same can be said of airlines, industry leaders, and the tech sector. In fact, airlines and aircraft manufacturers are teaming with the tech industry to drive this positive change.
This momentum is exemplified in a variety of strategic decisions concerning electricity-powered aircraft used for air-taxi and cargo transportation purposes. Last month, Boeing invested $450M in Wisk, an aerospace company that it co-owns, and that is developing pilotless air-taxis that are based on eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) technology. This is not Boeing’s first investment in this venture. Another airline investing in electric VTOL technology is Mesa Airlines, which ordered 150 VTOL aircrafts developed by Elroy Air. The purpose of these autonomous electric aircrafts is primarily commercial cargo delivery.
Signs that aviation is heading in a more sustainable direction are all around us. In November 2021, the largest airshow since the start of the pandemic was held in Dubai – and focused on sustainable flight travel technology. A few weeks earlier, NASA participated in an event at the White House, where it announced that it is partnering with key companies and organizations to develop sustainable fuel – as well as other green technologies – in accordance with US government goals.
The Bottom Line
Climate change is a real threat to our way of life, and major policy makers are sincerely trying to do something about it. But it’s not only up to international coalitions like the UN or governments. It is also up to various industries to commit to globally acknowledged goals, as well. The steps taken by countless aviation entities – both large and small – is very promising.
In the end, aviation is crucial to today’s global village. A greener future will not only help the aviation industry thrive, but will also help global society transition into what it wants – and needs – to become.