Climate-neutral aviation: redefining business as usual

Climate-neutral aviation

Now is the time to invest in all possible avenues to reduce aviation’s climate impact, says Glenn Llewellyn, Vice- President of Zero-Emission Aircraft at Airbus, whose climate strategy involves accelerating several pathways simultaneously while fostering the development of a new energy ecosystem

These are exciting times for the aviation industry. Innovative technologies and new energy pathways are putting meaningful reductions in aircraft emissions over the next decade tantalisingly within reach. It’s now up to the entire industry to decide whether we’re ready to seize this opportunity or simply carry on with business as usual.

At Airbus, we’ve made our decision. Yes, we’re ready. Today. Now. Immediately. We want to be the catalyst for change and are prepared to explore and invest in any technology solution that has the potential to take us there. This innovative spirit is fully rooted in an overall ambition that acts as our North Star: a zero-emission aircraft by 2035.

Ever since we at Airbus introduced our zero-emission concept aircraft known as ZEROe to the world in September 2020, I’ve been pleasantly surprised — and deeply humbled — by the incredibly positive feedback we’ve received from the aviation industry, governments and partners alike. It appears our instinct was right: our stakeholders’ and the public’s appetite for a viable path towards climate-neutral aviation has never been greater. We’re absolutely committed to delivering on this ambition to ensure the long-term viability of our industry. And we’re convinced there has never been a timelier or more urgent time to do so.

Fast-evolving societal and regulatory expectation

The aviation industry has already set itself some ambitious targets to reduce its carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. But we need to go further, particularly in the context of a growing aviation market. Aircraft performance improvements, in particular, will remain key, while new energy pathways will be vital to achieving the disruptive CO2 reductions the industry is targeting over the medium to long terms.

But decarbonising aviation isn’t just about reducing CO2 emissions: contrails and nitrogen oxide (NOx) are climate relevant emissions, too. We fully understand that society expects the aviation industry to deal with all aviation-related emissions, not just CO2.

This is why, at Airbus, our priority is to deal with the complete climate-impact challenge, which includes overall greenhouse gases and other aircraft emissions. To this end, our climate strategy for aviation focuses on accelerating several solutions simultaneously: offsetting, operations and infrastructure optimisation, technology development and a dynamic deployment of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).

Indeed, all Airbus aircraft are certified to operate on up to a 50% SAF blend. Our “Emission and Climate Impact of Alternative Fuels” project, which focuses on evaluating the performance of 100% SAF on overall aircraft emissions including contrails with our partner network, will undoubtedly support SAF’s future certification for blends that exceed today’s maximum of 50%. In addition, we need to accelerate the development of power-to-liquid synthetic e-fuel (PtL) made of renewable energy – which we at Airbus see as having huge scalability potential.

"Our priority is to deal with the complete climate-impact challenge, which includes overall greenhouse gases and other aircraft emissions."

Although solutions already exist to ensure our aircraft are compatible with SAF, there’s still a lot of work to do to encourage SAF’s uptake, which accounts for less than 1% of today’s flights. Incentives and long-term policies that encourage SAF use will be essential in this respect. Aircraft and engine manufacturers will also need to collaborate further to explore and make technically and economically viable as many alternative pathways as possible.

All of this underscores the need for the entire industry to start building the foundation for a future zero-emission aircraft because societal expectation and changing regulations are moving quickly. At Airbus, we recognise the time is now to invest in all possible avenues to reduce aviation’s climate impact, especially technology development, an area in which we’re committed to taking the lead. On this front, we’re excited by the possibilities, including a future game-changer – hydrogen.

Hydrogen: a gamer-changer in zero-emission technology

As a potential fit for future aircraft, hydrogen stands out from the pack for a variety of reasons. It offers the highest potential to reduce aviation’s climate impact. It is expected to be the most cost-effective fuelling option as the wider hydrogen ecosystem scales up. It has a higher power-to-weight ratio compared to batteries, which are the next best alternative. What is noteworthy about hydrogen is its high energy density (33 kWh/kg), which is nearly three times superior to jet fuel (12 kWh/kg). It emits no CO2 if generated from renewable energy through electrolysis. This would essentially enable aviation to be powered by renewable energy. Hydrogen may also enable us to significantly reduce and maybe eliminate NOx and contrails. And as the energy sector continues its transition towards clean energy sources, we expect the cost of hydrogen to significantly decline over the next decade as its production ramps up at a large scale. This will make hydrogen increasingly cost-competitive with existing options, such as jet fuel and SAF.

Airbus is exploring a variety of technology options that leverage hydrogen, including hydrogen fuel cells, hydrogen combustion in modified gas-turbine engines and PtL synthetic e-fuel. Another option is a hybrid-hydrogen configuration in which the aircraft’s gas-turbine engine could be augmented by an electric motor. The aircraft could thus potentially be powered by hydrogen and a hybrid-electric system powered by fuel cells. These technologies are complementary, and the benefits are additive.

Hydrogen is likely to be a solution for several industries to meet their climate-neutral targets, from automotive and marine to rail. At Airbus, we believe aviation should be no exception. In fact, recent internal Airbus calculations have shown that hydrogen has the potential to contribute up to 50% towards reducing aviation's climate impact through PtL synthetic e-fuel, which highlights just how important the scale-up of renewable energy is for aviation.

"We recognise the time is now to invest in all possible avenues to reduce aviation’s climate impact, especially technology development."

Safety at the heart of future aircraft

Today, hydrogen is a fuel we’re learning about from the automotive and space industries, both of which have been using hydrogen safely for decades. For the aviation industry, it will be mandatory to manage hydrogen at least as safely as kerosene.

Yes, the aviation industry can be proud of the impressive safety record we’ve achieved in the design and operation of today’s aircraft. This safety record is due to the enormous efforts made to make kerosene safe through special design and operating precautions.

It’s evident that hydrogen has different characteristics compared to kerosene. Nonetheless, safety systems and precautions, which will use different technologies and architectures compared to kerosene, will need to be put in place to meet or exceed the safety standards of current aircraft. On this point, Airbus will make no compromises.

At the same time, we won’t be satisfied with simply putting a hydrogen-powered aircraft into the air: we’re targeting widescale adoption and that starts with putting in place hydrogen infrastructure worldwide. The availability of hydrogen to fuel future aircraft is undoubtedly a key concern, but we’ve been carefully observing the hydrogen ecosystem and are excited by the incredible progress. In the European Union (EU) alone, the EU Hydrogen Strategy has been accelerating progress across the continent. Initial analyses show hydrogen production is shaping up to be much less centralised than oil production, which suggests this future energy ecosystem could benefit more countries compared to the existing fossilfuel ecosystem. We expect all of this rapid development to help drive down the costs of hydrogen for aviation, while boosting its availability in the years to come.

The road ahead to climate-neutral aviation

No single company can take on the Herculean task of decarbonising the aviation industry alone. An entire ecosystem will need to be put into place, one that will involve key players from a variety of different sectors.

Hydrogen-powered commercial aircraft may not take to the skies for another decade, but Airbus is already working to make it happen. We’re collaborating closely with a network of partners, including engine manufacturers, to push the development of the various hydrogen technologies. A final decision on technology choices and aircraft configurations is expected by 2025.

In parallel, we’re working alongside our airline and airport partners on “Hydrogen Hub at Airports” an initiative that investigates infrastructure requirements for hydrogen deployment. Specifically, we’re collaborating with airports that are planning a stepped approach to deployment, including using hydrogen to decarbonise airport facilities, ground operations and transportation (buses, tow trucks, cargo trucks, etc.). This is expected to pave the way to hydrogen availability for aircraft by the mid-2030s.

The road to climate-neutral aviation is already mapped out and we at Airbus strongly believe we have the duty to accelerate new energy pathways to make this vision a reality. To get there, significant investment and cross-industry collaboration will be required — two areas in which Airbus is fully committed.

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