Clean Aviation is gearing up for take-off

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Aviation has a track record in energy efficiency gains that any industry would be proud of.

Axel Krein is the Executive Director of Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertaking.

Since the dawn of international aviation, it has become 97.5% more energy (fuel) efficient per unit of production. Even more impressively, it is now more than 80% more efficient than it was when mass travel first began in 1970.

Nevertheless, in pre-pandemic times, emissions from aviation continued to grow. Because even though aircraft became more energy efficient year on year, the sheer number of aircraft in our skies was increasing by a massive 4.5% each year. So although the aircraft in our skies are much cleaner than ever before, the aviation sector as a whole is still emitting unsustainable amounts of pollutants.

Aviation’s share of manmade CO2 emissions – while still modest – has risen to ~2.5% globally from around 2.0% in the early nineties; but as other sectors such as road transport can decarbonise more easily and at a higher speed, this share will become larger in the coming decades.

Altogether, aviation emissions account for 3.8% of total CO2 emissions in Europe. However, taking non-CO2 effects – such as NOx – into account, aviation accounts for 8- 10% of global warming effects in Europe.

The International Panel on Climate Change’s most recent report has outlined that global warming of 1.5°C and 2°C will be exceeded during the 21st century unless deep reduction in CO2 and other greenhouse gases occur. We must not delay – the time to act is NOW.

Tackling the issue of sustainable aviation is complex, but not impossible. The EU has already been funding the Clean Sky public-private partnerships for 14 years now, with extremely promising results.

The progress that the Clean Sky Joint Undertakings have achieved to date is phenomenal. Clean Sky 2 is leading the way in innovative technology development for the sustainable aircraft of the future – you can have a sneak preview of what we’re working on by visiting our online stand.

Clean Sky’s approach is to gather the best minds from industry, academia, SMEs and research centres around the table to investigate a broad spectrum of technologies. We’re examining the possibilities of novel aircraft configurations, aerodynamics and flight dynamics, propulsion efficiency, non-propulsive control systems, next-generation cockpits, optimal cabin environments, innovative structural design and eco-design.

Some particularly interesting innovations include the TechTP, a sustainable low-fuel low-noise engine demonstrator for small aircraft and the UltraFan, a technology demonstrator for the next generation of environmentally-friendly gas turbines for large commercial aircraft. In addition, the Multifunctional Fuselage Demonstrator currently under development utilises the full potential of thermoplastic composites to help future European airliner production become faster, greener and more competitive. You can read about these technologies and many more on Clean Sky’s Results Stories page.

Going forwards, the new Clean Aviation programme is expected to launch before the end of 2021. The blueprint for the new European Partnership for Clean Aviation is a Strategic Research and Innovation Agenda developed by the European aeronautics stakeholders – read more about it here.

Three main thrusts will form the pillars of the new Partnership: hybrid electric and full electric concepts, ultra-efficient aircraft architectures, and disruptive technologies to enable hydrogen-powered aircraft.

The three thrusts will culminate in a new breed of regional, short haul and short/medium haul airliners which we anticipate will be ready for a commercial launch by 2030 for an entry into service by 2035.

Why are we focusing on regional and short/medium range flights?

A massive 2/3 of emissions are produced on city-pairs and routes below 4000km in length, and 1/3 on flights of less than 1500 km. It’s naïve to believe that these routes will be replaced by other transport modes. For many of these routes, it’s simply not possible to connect via land routes.

A ‘clean sheet’ aircraft design in the regional and short/medium range segments, therefore, can not only make a huge contribution to aviation’s climate impact, but these segments are also where the biggest opportunity lies.

The new aircraft developed as a result of the European Partnership for Clean Aviation are likely to constitute 75% of the world’s commercial airline fleet by 2050 and thus will have a major impact on aviation emissions and climate impact.

This is our ultimate vision – a world where everyone can fly without worrying about their carbon footprint.

European citizens are demanding that we reach our climate-neutral target of 2050. There is political will, and a desire to cooperate from the industry, from SMEs, from universities and from research centres.

There is no doubt in my mind that our goals are achievable. But massive, ambitious and rapid investment is needed now to make those goals a reality.

We have calculated that a €12 billion investment into research and innovation is needed in Europe between now and 2030 in order to reach climate neutrality in aviation by 2050.

The sum is not small, but the pay-off is our future, and in terms of financial gain, the prize is, conservatively, >25 000 new aircraft over ~15 years and a €5 trillion business.

That translates into more jobs and more prosperity – nearly 88 million jobs were supported worldwide in aviation and related tourism before Covid-19 hit the industry.

It’s a win-win scenario – better for the environment, better for the public, better for the aviation sector, better for the European economy. So what are we waiting for?

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