Words by Mattias Frithiof and Gaël Le Bris
“By dynamically reshaping patterns of accessibility, net-zero aviation could revitalize regions that are currently dislocated from existing networks of transport and commerce”
Green flight could level up regional disparities
Aviation accounts for about 2% of carbon emissions and 3.5% of all human activities that drive climate change. Air transport is also a cornerstone of societal and economic development in a globalized world, reducing geographical barriers for individuals and companies, creating opportunities for communities and increasing access to markets. According to industry estimates, aviation directly or indirectly supported US$3.5 trillion of economic activity in 2018-19, or 4.1% of global GDP. Decarbonizing air travel is essential to improve the balance between its costs and benefits — but the impact promises to be much further reaching than that. By dynamically reshaping patterns of accessibility, net-zero aviation could revitalize regions that are currently dislocated from existing networks of transport and commerce. To seize this opportunity, we need to start planning for it now.
Sustainable aviation fuels are already a reality
In the short and medium term, the main focus will be on the implementation of sustainable aviation fuels. Rather than being refined from crude oil, these are made using a variety of waste products, as well as feedstocks that are sustainable in order to prevent deforestation and competition with food production. Their lifecycle emissions can be up to 80% lower than those of conventionally sourced aviation fuels. Technologies and standards exist for producing them affordably to meet the criteria of existing jet fuels, and they are already supplied at some airports in western Europe and North America. They can be used in blends with conventional fuels, and aircraft and engine manufacturers are now certifying aircraft to fly with 100% sustainable fuel. However, production needs to be scaled up and we will need policies to make them more widely available and affordable. Who is going to take the lead?
A more disruptive technology shift is on the horizon
Electric and hybrid propulsion systems are evolving rapidly. Over a hundred electric aircraft projects exist as of today. Prototypes have been flying for a few years, and the first electric commuter aircraft with batteries are on track to be certified by 2023. Regional aircraft may follow between 2025 and 2030, potentially powered with fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity. Based on current technologies, it is unclear if all-electric larger commercial service aircraft are feasible. However, hybrid propulsion systems, which use an electric engine for most of the cruise and a conventional thermal engine to deliver more thrust during take-off and landing, hold promise. The next step towards net-zero aviation will be to use hydrogen as a jet fuel for medium and long-haul commercial flights: Airbus has committed to fly a demonstrator of this technology by 2035.
There will be changes on the ground too
Airports will need to accommodate new aircraft technologies and offer electric charging options, as well as store and deliver hydrogen at the gate. None of that infrastructure exists today. At commercial service airports, operators and air carriers might find it beneficial to invest together to develop the necessary infrastructure. Small airports may need to consider innovative approaches to funding — perhaps equipment manufacturers might invest in the deployment of chargers, as Tesla has done for electric vehicles. As for hydrogen, aviation will benefit from the emergence of the hydrogen economy and a large-scale supply chain. But in the meantime, we will need to develop a cost-efficient, aviation-specific network that can supply the first hydrogen-powered operators, especially at smaller, remote airports. This means identifying all the stakeholders – including non-aviation partners such as energy providers and industrial gas producers — and finding ways to work together.
An evolution of the hub-and-spoke model?
As with any technology shift, the development of alternative fuels and propulsion systems will be a step-by-step process. It will take time for ground infrastructure, airport systems, airline fleets and business models to readjust. Implementation will begin with small aerial vehicles over short distances, and the scale will gradually increase. Shorter travel times and higher frequencies could open up short and medium-haul commuting to additional groups of travellers. In the Nordics, for example, there are approximately 120 regional airports with small-scale traffic, often feeding the major hubs in a traditional hub-and-spoke system. Due to the initial limitations of these new technologies, new connections and economic relationships could be created — enabling, in essence, a more distributed and decentralized system. This presents an opportunity to generate greater value from airport assets and enhance economic activity throughout the wider region. With the advent of quieter, zero-emission aircraft, many smaller airports might be turned into mobility centres providing point-to-point regular and on-demand air services to other local communities. How can we support this development and realize its full potential?
Mattias Frithiof is director of advisory services at WSP based in Sweden; Gaël Le Bris is a senior aviation planner with WSP in the US. Read their longer article on Greening Future Flight here