Can aviation go green? This question has been asked many times over the past few years and the Coronavirus pandemic reset the clock in some ways. Predictions that were made only one or two years ago with regard to the aviation industry now have to be recalculated in light of the sudden drop in international air travel in the first half of 2020.
As the aviation industry recovers it could be years before passenger numbers return to pre-pandemic levels, so the dire predictions from 2018 or 2019 with regard to CO2 emissions from air travel need to be reconsidered.
Immediately after 9/11 flights were grounded for a mere four days. The Coronavirus pandemic cleared the skies of all but a small number of aircraft for many months in 2020 and 2021. So, on the one hand there has been a lot less air travel and there will be fewer flights in the immediate future.
The impact of the 2020/2021 pandemic
The catastrophic impact of the pandemic and lockdown has resulted in several airlines going out of business altogether; FlyBe, Avianca, and Virgin Australia to name just three. The industry has lost billions in revenue and thousands of employees have been made redundant as airlines are restructured in order to remain financially viable.
While some hard line environmentalists may gloat over the impact of Covid-19 on the global aviation industry, the loss in revenue means there is less to invest in research into fuel and engine efficiency, with the net result that it may take longer for aviation to go green. People are not going to stop flying and already the green shoots of recovery in the industry are evident. The opportunities for a more sustainable aviation industry haven’t changed but the timescales are now completely different.
Can Aviation Go Green? Sustainable Aviation
Jet fuel still contains more than 14 times more energy per kilo than batteries. There needs to be more use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). These biofuels made from plants, algae, municipal waste, and used cooking oil will need to be used in a greater percentage of aircraft engines.
Aircraft with electric motors are beginning to appear but so far they are short range aircraft for the General Aviation market. The Slovenian company Pipistrel achieved EASA certification for their Velis Electro earlier in 2020. All electric passenger carrying aircraft, even for short commuter routes, are still a few years away but the development is progressing. The Eviation Alice is a likely first contender in this category.
And there is the emerging Urban Air Mobility (UAM) market for which there are several prototypes either flying or on the drawing board.
In order for larger long haul aircraft to reduce their carbon footprint airlines will have to rely on a combination of biofuels, improved aircraft design and efficiency, and carbon offsetting for some years if not decades to come, but gradually the aviation industry will decrease its carbon footprint and it will evolve into a cleaner and greener transport. It’s only a matter of time, and one of the few silver linings to the dark cloud of Covid-19 is the effect that it has had on perspective.
In business and in personal life people used lockdown as a time of reflection, a pause during which they consider the past and the future. Airlines are no different in this respect and though 2020 & 2021 may be remembered as years of loss and pain for many it could also be the low point from which they bounce back with renewed vigour.
The aircraft of the future are going to be powered by all kinds of engines and motors that use a variety of sustainable fuels. Airports too will continue to evolve, developing more efficient processes and systems. So the answer to the question, ‘Can aviation go green?‘ is: aviation is already going green but it may take a little longer that we first thought.