Ambitious R&I investment will enable aviation to move towards climate neutrality

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Axel Krein. [Clean Sky 2 JU]

Bold investment is needed to steer aviation firmly on a course towards climate neutrality by 2050, Clean Sky’s Spring Event, Clean Aviation for a Competitive Green Recovery in Europe, heard on 22 April 2021.

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

The path ahead is a major challenge, but if we take an ambitious, moon-shot approach, and leverage the required huge research and development efforts, then I believe we can achieve our goal of climate neutrality in aviation by 2050.

The European Commissioner for Transport, Adina Vălean, brought a hopeful message with her as she addressed the audience. She recognised that “we are faced with a formidable challenge” but said that “recovery is a primary focus; and this recovery is an opportunity to shape the future of the aviation sector. It is clear that a much more radical path must be taken. If we want to reach climate neutrality by 2050 we have to start now with the technology developments for carbon-neutral aircraft.”

It is important to understand that if we want to have a climate-neutral aircraft fleet by 2050, we need to start phasing carbon-neutral aircraft into the current fleet no later than 2035. The time between now and the end of this decade is therefore vital to identify, develop, mature and demonstrate the necessary technologies. Time is of the essence!

Global competition

Thierry Breton, the European Commissioner for Internal Market, outlined the difficulties that have been experienced by the aviation sector thanks to Covid-19, but said that the pandemic is not the only challenge, pointing to the increasing competition in the aviation sector worldwide.

However, Commissioner Breton sees sustainable aviation as a way for Europe to stay ahead of its competitors. “Climate change is a global concern. A significant part of the next generation of aircraft must benefit from zero emission technology,” he said. “Leading on sustainable aircraft will give a competitive advantage to the European aviation industry.”

He believes that Clean Sky’s successor, the proposed European Partnership for Clean Aviation, will play a crucial role in the development of these new technologies.

“The Clean Aviation Partnership will contribute to this disruption,” he continued. “I believe that even more could be done.”

Jean-Eric Paquet, the Director-General of the European Commission’s Directorate of Research and Innovation, also delivered a positive message for Clean Sky and for the proposed future European Partnership for Clean Aviation:

“I’m impressed by how the EU aviation industry is now coming together, including the research organisations and knowledge networks across our SME and innovation ecosystems to bring Europe’s industry into a clean future. I think Europe now has a head start and my expectation is very much that the proposed Clean Aviation Partnership really allows us to ensure that we keep this head start. You can count on DG Research and Innovation to help you… to set up the new Partnership!”

Challenges ahead

Major aircraft manufacturing CEOs and CTOs as well as leaders in the research and SME space joined our discussions as part of three panels, one focusing on aviation’s role in the green recovery, a second focused on competition in global markets and a third on leading innovation for sustainable aviation.

A main theme that arose in the discussions was the need for ambitious and rapid investment into the development of new sustainable technologies.

Guillaume Faury, the CEO of Airbus, elaborated on this theme of disruption as a force for change: “Aviation is in my view the mode of transport of the future,” he said. “But we have a carbon challenge and we have to take the bull by the horns. We don’t have much time. We need support.”

Alessandro Profumo, the CEO of Leonardo and President of the AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD) said, “Sustainability is going to be the key driver of growth for aviation. Our industry will need to be able to improve – the pandemic has changed the landscape entirely.”

Olivier Andriès, the CEO of Safran, recognised that “the crisis has exacerbated problems that existed before” but he is also optimistic for the Green Recovery, saying that: “Europe has the willingness and the talent to be the number one climate-neutral continent by 2050.”

Olivier Jankovec, the Director-General of ACI (Airports Council International) Europe, said that “a tremendous challenge” is facing aviation and that “there’s no magic wand.” He advocated for “thinking outside the box” and investigating disruptive solutions.

Clean Sky leading the way

The Clean Sky and Clean Sky 2 Joint Undertakings have both contributed to moving the needle significantly forwards in terms of groundbreaking, innovative results for sustainable aviation.

The Portuguese Ministry of Science, Technology and Higher Education, represented by Prof. Eduardo Maldonado, praised both the results and the inclusive structure of Clean Sky, saying:

“We believe that the results that have been produced over the years speak for themselves and Clean Sky is certainly an initiative that deserves to be supported and continued,” he said.

If you’re interested in learning more about Clean Sky’s results to date, visit our online stand or read our Highlights 2020 report.

De-risking R&I investment and regulation

The development and implementation of sustainable aviation fuels “represent a solution with enormous potential” according to Carsten Spohr, CEO of Lufthansa Group. He put forward an idea for raising the funds needed to spur investment in green aviation: “Let’s take all the taxes coming from industry and use it for research and innovation,” he said.

The adoption of regulations that serve to de-risk the development of new innovative technologies was called for by many of the industry leaders. But they also reminded the regulators that regulations for Europe are not enough – a global effort is needed in order to truly de-carbonise the industry.

Peter Javorčík, Director-General of Transport, Energy, Environment and Education at the Council of the European Union noted that political work is only half the battle, saying, “the reduction of emissions will not be achieved by political statements.”

For Javorčík, there are three main priorities for the aviation sector: safety, connectivity and going green.

“We have a double challenge ahead of us: we need to relaunch the industry and at the same time go green. Our responsibility as legislators at the European level is to ensure that the industry has a solid legislative framework to face this double challenge.”

MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu highlighted the importance of research and innovation going forwards, saying: “We have to take science-based measures not only regarding emissions but also regarding competitiveness.”

He also mentioned that the European Parliament would review legislation on the Clean Aviation Programme in May and Prof. Eduardo Maldonado said that the Portuguese Presidency intended to finalise this during their term.

Sustainability as an avenue for recovery

SMEs in all walks of life are experiencing difficulties because of the pandemic, but perhaps no sector feels this struggle as severely as the aviation sector. Ana Villate, the Managing Director of the Basque Aerospace Cluster (HEGAN), highlighted issues with supply chains and drops in demand for services, and said that this is a particularly difficult period for SMEs working in aviation. She hailed sustainable aviation as a way to protect the environment and simultaneously restore profits, saying:

“Being more sustainable is the best way to be more competitive.”

Innovation for clean aviation

The final panel focused on how to lead innovation for sustainable aviation. CTOs from Airbus, Safran, Liebherr, and Rolls-Royce as well as the Chair of DLR’s Executive Board joined the Clean Sky’s Head of Programme, Sebastien Dubois, to discuss key technologies and innovations under development in their various companies as part of Clean Sky 2.

According to Grazia Vittadini, CTO of Airbus, “air travel is a lifeline for our economy, society and global recovery – industry must play a key role!” She predicts that the Clean Aviation programme will be even more ambitious than Clean Sky, saying: “The Clean Aviation programme is taking it all up a notch. We want to demonstrate the technical and economical viability for new aircraft solutions.”

It takes a long time at the moment for innovative technologies to go from concept to market ready, however, and Francis Carla, CTO of Liebherr, said: “We know our technology and development cycle is a long cycle.” He gave an example of a new electrical air system developed under Clean Sky 2: “It took us around 15 years to reach Technology Readiness Level 6 and the successful flight test demonstration on an A320.”

Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla of DLR agreed that the timeframes in aviation are long. She spoke about how research centres can bring know-how from a whole range of different areas to the aviation sector to develop innovative solutions.

“We bring our knowledge from aerospace and our knowledge from other sectors,” she said. “This accelerates our research towards our common goal of sustainable aviation.”

Paul Stein of Rolls-Royce reminded the panel of the size of the challenge ahead and the importance of developing disruptive innovation outside of just the aviation sector, for example, developing hydrogen technology and ramping up the use of sustainable aviation fuels.

“We’re almost in danger of underestimating how big a task this is,” he said. “But this is a really exciting time for aviation as we build back better post-COVID. There’s a clear role for the new partnership on Clean Aviation – to bring all our concepts and innovations together!”

He also highlighted that decisions need to be made on the road to be taken to zero-emissions. It’s important because the “fueling and the infrastructure and all of the supply chains have to have time to ramp up,” he said.

Stéphane Cueille, CTO of Safran, had an optimistic view of the future of sustainable aviation, one which I share. He summarised, “overall, I feel positive – if we pool the public and private sectors to work together, we can keep alive the dream of flying by making it sustainable!”

I would like to thank all of our esteemed guests for sharing their expertise and insights on the future of aviation and a competitive, sustainable Green Recovery. I am delighted to report that Clean Sky’s results have shown great promise to date and we look forward to significantly contribute to the goal of climate-neutral aviation in Europe by 2050 by executing the targets of the proposed new European Partnership for Clean Aviation!

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