The aviation sector is considered one of the "hard-to-abate" sectors, meaning that there are going to be some major challenges ahead in bringing emissions all the way down to zero. In this post, Robbie Bourke from Oliver Wyman's Aviation team gives a really nice overview on where things stand and what innovations are in the pipeline that could materially move the dial for the industry. If I were to summarize the sector's plans to hit net-zero emissions in one phrase then that phrase would be "marginal gains", in that there is no single silver bullet solution, but there is hope that if we keep chipping away at the various drivers of emissions that we can eventually dramatically improve on where we are today.
Robbie is an aeronautical engineer by trade and worked at Airbus on the engineering teams that designed the A380 and some of their other most popular aircraft. He's now focussing most of his attention towards helping Oliver Wyman's Aviation clients with their net-zero transition (including aspects of strategy, operations and design) so this video contains a great deal of practical advice building on his unique experience:
Aircraft Life Cycle Analysis (LCA)
As will be seen below in our emissions LCA of an aircraft, the vast majority of emissions come from the use phase of the aircraft. You may recall in my LCA for the auto sector, that the emissions that are generated before the car even leaves the factory constitute a large portion of lifetime emissions. In the case of an aircraft, the fuel-related emissions from the use phase completely dwarf the emissions from the manufacturing phase. The reason the emissions from fuel are so large is that we get an incredible amount of use out of planes - the Boeing 777 modeled below carries more than 80 tonnes over 100 million kilometers over a typical lifespan.
That's not to say that aircraft manufacturers shouldn't continue to reduce emissions during the manufacturing phase. Similar to the work we are doing in the automotive sector, we are helping aircraft manufacturers to implement carbon-conscious procurement processes and to embed Internal Carbon Pricing (ICP) into their financial reporting. But it does mean that the vast majority of focus needs to be on fuel-related emissions.
Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)
Given the importance of fuel-related emission for the aviation industry, a great deal of hope is being place on SAF. At present, Robbie confessed that less than 1% of aircraft fuel is SAF but the hope is to increase this to 10-15% in the coming decade or so with a long-term goal of increasing the mix to 50%. However, SAF only gives an 80% reduction in the best case scenario so with 15% SAF we only achieve a 12% reduction in fuel emissions.
Increased passenger demand
Robbie's team publish a global fleet forecast each year and are projecting that the number of commercial aircraft will grow from today's number of 28,000 to around 35,000 by the end of the decade. This increase in supply mirrors the expected increase in demand for passenger aircraft as consumers in developing nations start to adopt the travel habits and lifestyles of their wealthier neighbors.
Fortunately these newer aircraft are more fuel efficient and combined with the increased adoption of SAF, Robbie thinks absolute emissions will remain fairly flat over the coming decade. This will place further pressure on other industries to lower their emissions more rapidly.
The risk posed by the above emissions trajectory for the industry is that activists could start to turn up the pressure on consumers to cut down on their airmiles (analogous to cutting down on red meat) as a way of bringing down absolute emissions.
This would clearly be an undesirable scenario from the Aviation industry's perspective so Robbie and team are working with the industry on a few new lines of enquiry. The first is the use of hydrogen fuel which could be a game changer once green (renewables-based) hydrogen and blue (natural gas-based) hydrogen are being produced at scale. But the use of hydrogen will require a completely new engine design to cater for, among other things, the safety issues surrounding hydrogen fuel. As a related point, Robbie mentioned that there is a completely new aircraft design being discussed known as "The Wing" where the passengers would sit in the wing of the aircraft. This aircraft has improved lift/drag parameters and is also well suited to storing large quantities of hydrogen. Finally, there is the idea of electric-powered or hybrid-electric aircraft but Robbie clarified that this is mainly being seen as a solution for smaller short-haul aircraft and flying taxis!
In short, the race is on for the industry to transition to a lower carbon future. Fortunately, it is clear from speaking to Robbie that the industry has their brightest minds working on the problem so there is hope I can avoid having to limit my future summer vacations to the British seaside!