Planes are a minor contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, but their share is sure to grow as more people travel in the years to come.
FARNBOROUGH, England (AP) — Airplanes are a minor contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, but their share is sure to grow as more people travel in the years to come — and that faces the aviation industry with the prospect of stricter environmental regulations and higher costs.
The industry has set a goal of achieving net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Experts who follow the issue are skeptical.
Until the COVID-19 pandemic caused travel to plummet, airlines were on a steady trajectory of fuel consumption, year after year. Aircraft engines today are the most efficient ever, but improvements in fuel burn reduction are extremely slow – about 1% per year on average.
At the opening of a major aviation industry show near London on Monday, talk of climate change replaced much of the usual buzz about big plane orders.
The weather was right for it. The Farnborough International Airshow opened as UK authorities issued the first extreme heat warning in English history. Two nearby airports closed their runways, with one reporting that the heat had caused the surface to flare up.
As airlines grapple with climate change, the stakes could hardly be higher.
Jim Harris, who heads the aerospace practice at consultant Bain & Co., says with airlines recovering from the jolt of the pandemic, reaching net zero by 2050 is now the industry’s biggest challenge. .
“There’s no obvious solution, there’s no single technology, there’s no set of actions that will get the industry there,” Harris says. “The amount of changes required and the timing are big issues.”
Aviation emits just one-sixth the amount of carbon dioxide produced by cars and trucks, according to the World Resources Institute, a Washington-based nonprofit research group. However, aviation is used by far fewer people per day.
Jet fuel consumption by the four largest US airlines – American, United, Delta and Southwest – rose 15% in the five years to 2019, the last year before air travel plummeted, even as they were updating their fleets with more efficient aircraft.
Airbus and Boeing, the world’s two largest aircraft manufacturers, both addressed sustainability at Monday’s opening day at Farnborough, although they approached the issue in different ways.
Airbus and seven European airline groups announced a venture in West Texas to explore removing carbon dioxide from the air and injecting it deep underground, while Boeing officials said the fuel for Sustainable Aviation, or SAF, would be the best – but not the only – tool to reduce emissions.
Last September, airline executives and President Joe Biden touted a deal to cut aircraft emissions by 20% by 2030 by producing 3 billion gallons of SAF by then and replacing all jet fuel. conventional by 2050. Climate experts welcomed the idea but said the voluntary targets are too optimistic. SAF’s current production is approximately 5 million gallons per year.
A sustainable fuel is a biofuel made from cooking oil, animal fats, municipal waste or other raw materials. Its main advantage is that it can be mixed with conventional fuel to power jet engines. It has been used many times on test flights and even on scheduled flights with passengers on board.
Among the disadvantages of SAF is its high cost – about three times more than conventional jet fuel. As airlines look to buy and use more, the price will rise further. Supporters are pushing for tax breaks and other incentives to boost production.
Policymakers see SAF as a bridging fuel — a way to reduce emissions until more dramatic breakthroughs, such as electric or hydrogen-powered planes, are ready. These technologies may not be widely available for airline-sized aircraft for another two or three decades.
Several companies are designing and starting to build electric-powered planes, but most are small planes that take off and land vertically, like helicopters, and they’re about the same size – with room for just a few passengers.
Electric planes large enough to carry around 200 passengers – a mid-size jet by airline standards – would require much bigger batteries for longer flights. The batteries would weigh about 40 times as much as jet fuel to produce the same amount of power, making electric airliners impractical without huge advancements in battery technology.
Hydrogen, on the other hand, “is a very light fuel,” says Dan Rutherford, who leads the study on decarbonizing cars and planes for an environmental group, the International Council on Clean Transportation. “But you need a lot of volume to store it, and the fuel tanks themselves are heavy.”
Despite this, Rutherford remains “cautiously optimistic” about hydrogen. His group estimates that by 2035 there could be hydrogen-powered planes capable of flying about 2,100 miles (3,380 kilometers). Others, however, see obstacles, including the need for massive and expensive new infrastructure at airports to store hydrogen that has been cooled into liquid form.
Airlines face the risk of increasingly stringent emissions regulations.
The United Nations aviation organization has reached an agreement – voluntary until 2026, then mandatory – in which airlines can offset their emissions by investing in projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gases by other means. However, some major countries have not signed it and environmentalists say the program will not reduce emissions.
Even some in the airline industry, like United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, have scoffed at carbon offsets, which companies can get for things like paying to plant trees.
The European Union has its own plan to cut emissions by 55% by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050 while bringing aviation back under the targets of the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change. He is trying to finalize an emissions trading system and impose higher taxes on fossil fuels, including jet fuel. The rules would only apply to flights within Europe.
“Tax policies already in place, particularly in Europe, will drive up airline operating costs,” says Harris, the Bain consultant. “At the end of the day, fares go up, whether it’s paying more for sustainable aviation fuel or taxes on fossil fuels.”
Airlines also face the risk of flight shame – that more consumers may decide to travel by train or electric vehicle rather than plane if these produce fewer emissions. That doesn’t seem to be inhibiting many travelers this summer, however, as pent-up travel demand has led to full planes.
Whether fuel and aircraft changes can reduce emissions quickly enough to meet the industry’s 2050 target remains to be seen – and whether airlines are acting alone or under pressure from regulators. But it won’t be easy.
“We are not on track to meet these targets,” Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said. “We need energy producers to invest in sustainable products for us, (which) will force the government to intervene.”
Rutherford, the transportation expert, notes that net zero “is a really tough goal.”
“If we’re not clearly on a trajectory of reducing emissions and massive adoption of clean fuels by 2030 and 2035, we’re not going to reach net zero by 2050,” he says.
Koenig reported from Dallas. Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report.
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