Aerospace industry steps up greening efforts

The aviation industry is slowly stepping up efforts to green its sector. [Shutterstock]

With the European Commission under pressure to deliver on its green commitments and increase funding for research and development in the field, aerospace companies are slowly starting to recognise Europe as a trail blazer towards greening their sector.

According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), the environmental impact of every single air traveller has halved since 1990 – modern aircraft fly more quietly, save more fuel than in recent decades and emit less CO2 per flight – but the industry is still responsible for 2-3% of the total man-made CO2 emissions.

Policymakers, scientists and public alike have joined forces in a call for action – at least since the term “flight shaming” first appeared in Sweden last winter and aviation became an enemy of the generation of schoolchildren striking for climate protection.

As the global aviation sector charts a path through fierce competition, economic woes and high fuel prices, realisation of the need to change has slowly reached the aerospace industry, now under pressure to search for innovative approaches.

From 2020, the industry committed to become CO2-neutral, and by 2050 reduce its net CO2 emissions to half the level of 2005, regardless of growth.

European Green Deal

The European Commission unveiled its widely anticipated European Green Deal in December, outlining a long list of policy initiatives aimed at putting Europe on track to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, in part by encouraging climate-friendly industries and clean technologies.

“The timing is interesting, you’ve got a new European Parliament, you’ve got a new European Commission taking over with a whole new realignment of portfolios as well as the New Green Deal and the EU’s long-term budget,” said Raymond Foley, director of the United Technologies Research Centre (UTRC) in Cork, Ireland.

“The objectives are correct – it’s a matter that, we as an industry, absolutely have to address, for all sorts of reasons,” Foley told EURACTIV during a recent on-site visit to UTC’s research facility in Cork.

The facility in Ireland, one of five worldwide, hosts researchers from more than 25 countries and works in close cooperation with regional universities, carrying out research on energy and security systems.

“Europe has very strong leadership in both climate and research, and that’s one of the reasons for us to be in Europe to start with,” Foley said, adding that US-based aerospace manufacturers were searching for stepping-stones across Europe, which they consider a powerhouse in terms of research and market power.

Because of the rising amount of legislation, and with the changing political environment across the bloc, aerospace companies are also slowly acknowledging Europe as a location, where ambition and research opportunities can potentially come together, Foley said.

Clean Sky

Earlier this year, during the Paris Air Show, 23 representatives of the aviation industry, research organisations and university associations committed to a future European Clean Aviation partnership that is meant to follow Clean Sky 2 and could present another push towards de-carbonisation by 2050.

The Clean Sky Joint Undertaking (CSJU) is a public-private partnership between the European Commission and the European aeronautics industry that coordinates and funds research activities to deliver significantly quieter and more environmentally friendly aircraft.

Signatories of the Paris Air Show declaration included Airbus, Safran, Dassault Aviation, UTC, Thales, Rolls-Royce, Saab and Leonardo as well as the German Fraunhofer Institute. The Joint Declaration was handed over to Jean-Eric Paquet, the European Commission’s previous director-general for research and innovation.

One of the industries’ next frontiers is electrification and zero-emission, both for long – and short-distance flights.

Additionally, seven major aerospace manufacturers released a joint statement in June outlining how the industry is working to mitigate climate change impacts and the firms committed to sharing best practice to de-carbonise the sector as it approaches its “third era” of electrification and digitisation.

Research into greening aircraft

“As we look at the research agenda of Horizon Europe, the big focus is on de-carbonisation, with around 35% of the budget expected to be spent on de-carbonisation,” Foley said, adding that especially the Clean Sky Undertaking might benefit from the green objectives of the fund.

“We’re trying to identify what the things are and what we as a company specifically need to really double down on in terms of electrification of flights, new communications networks, artificial intelligence and autonomy,” he added.

“If you can use machine intelligence to explore wider sets of architectures, you can get a lot of more optimum solutions in the end, so you can have more efficient overall aircraft,” he added.

Foley said that some of the projects are exploring ways to offer electric flights for smaller distances, and a hybrid approach for planes carrying between 50 to 150 passengers.

“But there’s also really a need for sustainable fuels to be part of the whole mix, and probably a clean aviation partnership if we want to get to a level outlined in the Paris Accords,” Foley added.

[Edited by Benjamin Fox/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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