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How Long Will It Take the Aviation Industry to Reach Net Zero?

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Jane Marsh's picture
Editor, Environment.co

Jane Marsh is the Editor-in-Chief of Environment.co. She covers topics related to climate policy, sustainability, renewable energy and more.

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Can the aviation industry ever reach net zero emissions? It might happen within the next few decades but will require some innovative engineering. What sustainability challenges is the sector facing, and what solutions are on the horizon?

Challenges Facing Net Zero Emissions Goals in Aviation

Many industries are setting net zero emissions goals today, particularly those in the transportation sector. Electric cars are starting to become popular, but electric planes are not yet replacing conventional ones. Aviation faces unique challenges that make it difficult to transition to more sustainable aircraft.

The aviation industry accounts for approximately 2.5% of global CO2 emissions and has quadrupled its output since 1966. Companies can invest in carbon capture services to offset some of the emissions created by air travel, but it is not a comprehensive solution. The sector needs new aircraft running on clean energy to reach net zero emissions.

The main challenge to accomplish this is the power needs of large aircraft. The weight and travel distance require much more energy than a passenger car. Every plane today has some kind of battery, even small experimental ones, but powering the entire craft on batteries is extremely difficult. Battery-powered airplanes need large-capacity batteries, in the hundreds of kilowatt hours, that are also as lightweight as possible.

Some prototype battery-powered planes are in development, but batteries are falling behind as the key to green aviation. Instead, industry leaders are focusing on making conventional jet fuel more sustainable and developing cleaner versions, such as biomass fuel from agricultural waste. Hydrogen fuel cells also show potential as an alternative to batteries in the electric aircraft market.

Why 2050 Is the Ideal Goal for Achieving Net Zero Emissions

Despite the challenges facing the development of zero-emissions aircraft, there is still hope for the aviation industry to reach net zero status. However, it may take longer than other industries and require innovative technology.

In October 2022, the International Civil Aviation Organization announced a global goal to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. That might seem underwhelming compared to the auto industry’s 2030 net zero goal. However, the timeline of the development and scaling of electric cars indicates that 2050 is a reasonable benchmark for the aviation industry to aim for.

The first mass-produced consumer electric car, GM’s EV-1, was released in 1996. It didn’t spark a boom in electric vehicles, but it started the transition to EVs. It also marked the beginning of serious development of mass-market electric cars. It wasn’t until 2012, when Tesla Motors released the Model S, that EVs began to truly snowball in popularity. It has taken roughly 20 years for the auto industry to get where it is today, which is in the midst of historically high adoption rates for electric vehicles.

The aviation industry is considerably behind the auto sector on the path to net zero emissions and clean energy, partly due to the bigger technical hurdles involved. However, the timeline automakers followed does hint at how long the necessary technological innovations could take to develop in aviation — about 20 to 30 years. This aligns perfectly with the goal of net zero emissions in aviation by 2050.

How Aviation Will Reach Its 2050 Goal

There are a few ways the aviation industry could change over the next two decades to reach net zero emissions. For example, the International Air Transport Association plans for sustainable aviation fuels to make up 65% of its decarbonization efforts. New technologies, like battery and hydrogen-powered aircraft, only account for 13% of the IATA’s strategy.

This is a popular approach across the aviation industry. Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel by creating new aircraft from the ground up, aerospace companies are focusing on developing cleaner fuels that work with existing planes. Adopting sustainable fuels is much more cost-efficient than investing in entirely new fleets. Plus, it dodges the battery capacity challenge facing electric aircraft.

Sustainable fuels will only cut about 75%-95% of aviation emissions, though. Additional reductions, such as carbon capture and storage, will be needed to close the remaining gap.

Building a Net Zero Aviation Industry

The aviation industry has a long run toward net zero emissions, but it is possible. International industry organizations are setting their sights on 2050 to reach net zero. Achieving this goal will require innovations in aviation technology, particularly sustainable fuels, but the sector is taking steps in the right direction.

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Julian Silk's picture
Julian Silk on Jan 6, 2023

Thank you for the post.  Have people looked into how much weight carbon capture devices will add to the aircraft, with the resulting need for additional fuel?

Jane Marsh's picture
Thank Jane for the Post!
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