Perspectives and strategies for achieving net zero in aviation

Nicola Brittain

A panel of experts discuss the current landscape and future trajectory of net zero aviation in the UK.

While aviation helps connect people, cultures and businesses around the world and holds great importance in keeping the global economy afloat, it is also one of the fastest growing sources of greenhouse gas emissions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates that aviation is responsible for approximately 2.5% of all human-produced CO2 emissions – such a stat has prompted the industry to meet net zero goals by 2050.

But how can the industry execute these goals? Many companies across the aviation value chain have set goals to be completed over the long term, but there are actions they can take today to help accomplish these objectives. Such advice was echoed by a panel of climate change and technology experts during a keynote session at this year’s Decarbonising Transport Week conference.

Effective approaches

During the roundtable, Dr Kim Yates, chair of the Climate Change Advocacy Group at the Association for Consultancy and Engineering, shared some of the challenges within the aviation sector, not only in the planes themselves but also within airports and in supporting infrastructure.

“What we are seeing across the board, especially since Covid, is that there has been a resurgence in the aviation industry. The more planes that fly, the more greenhouse gas emissions are going to go up, exacerbating climate change, unless something is done about it,” Yates explained.

“Although 95% of emissions are associated with the planes themselves, there is a lot the airports can do in terms of getting people to and from the airport, energy consumption at the airport itself, and new construction projects on the go.”

Yates stresses that to get to net zero, it is all about planned decarbonisation, looking at what you can influence and what you can control, but the vast majority of it is about collaboration.

Meanwhile, Helena Bennett, Head of Climate Policy at Green Alliance, shed light on the current state of aviation policy, the government’s net zero plans, and the necessary shifts required for a more effective approach. Bennett heads up a team that looks at net zero and decarbonisation across a range of sectors such as energy, renewables and transport.

“What is great about being able to look across all of those sectors that Green Alliance specialises is understanding how the system fits together – so not just looking at aviation in a silo but working out how it fits with the need to build more infrastructure and decarbonise buildings, for example.”

The Green Alliance has three main strands to decarbonising aviation that  it intends to deploy up to 2050 and beyond: sustainable aviation fuels, zero emissions flights using hydrogen, and managing demand of flights and restricting any airport expansions in the UK until 2035 until we start to see emissions reductions.

Focus on technology

Elsewhere in the roundtable, Nour Eid, head of strategy & commercial of the Hydrogen Capability Network at the Aerospace Technology Institute, unveiled insights into the essential role of hydrogen in the aerospace sector’s decarbonisation journey.

Beyond sustainable aviation fuel, the HCN project is pioneering a coordinated approach to drive advancements in cryogenic research, liquid hydrogen (LH2) supply, and test infrastructure. “We are looking at the research required to develop hydrogen; as well as materials testing and standards in the first instance and the development of liquid hydrogen test hubs in the UK where manufacturers can come and test their systems. It is also important to look at skills required to develop the UK’s knowledge base,” said Eid.

He also delves into critical questions such as the focus on sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), hydrogen, or batteries for decarbonisation, prerequisites for zero-emission flight, and the strategic steps needed to expedite the journey. “In order to achieve net zero, there’s no silver bullet for the sector – it is a difficult to decarbonise, highly-technological sector,” he said. “And we need to be pushing all of the technologies available to us: including electrification, hydrogen and SAFs. We also need to fly with greater operational efficiency and consider the effects of non-CO2 emissions.”

Driving progress

Meanwhile, Colin Tattam, executive director at Innovate UK Business Connect, shared his perspective on delivering UK capabilities for net zero aviation. “Unsurprisingly, aviation is global, so delivering net zero carbon for aviation is truly only going to be possible though an international approach,” Tattam said. “One of the strengths of the UK is that we have an industry that knows that it needs to change. In 2020, we became the first aviation industry in the world to commit to net zero by 2050, and since then, other governments have followed suit.”

Tattam also engaged in the discussion on the feasibility of achieving net-zero aviation, identifying potential game-changing approaches, and understanding the strengths and obstacles within the UK’s sustainable aviation landscape. “Can aviation be truly net zero? Yes – but it does not mean that it is not complex and challenging,” he said. “It is technically feasible because we are navigating out way through a number of parallel pathways that work. We also need innovation in operational changes to drive efficiencies.”

Annabel Sarling, policy and commercial development lead at Low Carbon Contracts Company, explores the symbiosis between ‘Contracts for Difference’ in the energy sector and the aviation industry. “Contracts for Difference (CfD) is a really unique mechanism that provides risk allocation to areas of low-carbon electricity that, without it, wouldn’t necessarily be able to develop,” Sarling said. “We have been working with the Department of Transport and discussing how the CfD was used, looking at the challenge sustainable aviation fuels are facing and trying to apply our success measures that have worked in offshore wind, for example, to help the aviation industry get where it needs to be.”

What more needs to be done

Yates concluded the roundtable by expressing what can be done to make sure the industry achieves its goals. “The sector realises that it is  a highly polluting industry and that they have to do something,” she emphasised. “Not only do we have to make behavioural changes, but if we want to make it a ‘sustainable industry’, we have got to make a big difference.”