Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Net Zero By 2050: Can It Be Done?

By Bikram Vohra

In October 2021, a significant decision was taken by IATA to make a member commitment towards achieving net zero carbon emissions by 2050. That means creating a perfect balance between the amount of greenhouse gas taken out to the amount put in. Net Zero is now the industry’s number one long-term priority, but only if the action starts now.

By doing so, these carriers would comply with the Paris agreement of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees C. The COP 27 meeting highlighted three profound aspects.

Since 2015, under the legally binding Paris Agreement Treaty, almost all countries in the world have committed to the following:

✔  Keep the rise in global average temperature to ‘well below’ 2°C, and ideally 1.5°C, above pre-industrial levels.

✔  Strengthen the ability to adapt to climate change and build resilience.

✔  Align finance flows with ’a pathway towards low greenhouse gas emissions and climate-resilient development’.

It is not as though the industry is not trying its best to lighten its footprint for carbon emissions. Fuel efficiency, for example, has improved by 70% since the advent of jet engines. The efforts to go a bridge further are ongoing.

Come 2028, aircraft that do not meet the new standards of emissions will be grounded. Already production of new planes ensures it is in keeping with the more stringent protocols. IATA expects to reduce the net zero initiative’s goals by 45% before 2030.

How does it plan to do this? Working backwards, it expects 10 billion passenger journeys by 2050. That is 2.2 gigatons of carbon dioxide. A single tonne is 1 billion metric tons. Placed in perspective, one gigaton is the carbon dioxide produced by 200 million elephants or 5.5 million blue whales.

We emit roughly 50 gigatons annually, so aviation accounts for approximately 4% of the total as a single entity.

If the 2028 date is kept and the reduction is tangible, then the industry knows it is on the right track and being responsible for its efforts.

The official breakdown for this exercise is given as such:

  • 65% Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)
  • 13% new technology, electric and hydrogen
  •  3% Infrastructure and operational efficiencies
  •  19% offsets and carbon capture

These guidelines were echoed at the recent ICAO conference in Montreal. Finally, there was a resolution on the 2050 long-term aspirational goal, although some nations abstained from giving support. The operative word is still aspirational.

The Chinese want another 10 years, and the Russians see it as an unrealistic deadline.

A lot depends on the success and progression of sustainable alternative fuels. SAF is at the core and may account for as high as 65% of the reduction potential. Sustainable travel will take centre stage as people become more aware as the spectre of global warming becomes more real. The aviation industry is actively waking people up.

An Oncarbon report asks: What do consumers think about carbon labelling and disclosing the environmental cost of travel?

What portion of consumers has actually paid for a carbon offset or lower emissions flight option?

What blocks travellers from booking more sustainable travel options?

Gradually the number of conscientious objectors is increasing. People, especially regular fliers, are beginning to ask if there are less harmful alternatives.

Power plant manufacturers have a major role to play. While experiments in hydrogen propulsion are encouraging and even marking breakthroughs, we are still years away from a prototype. Three car manufacturers have already made three functional models: Honda Clarity Fuel Cell, the Hyundai Nexo SUV, and the Toyota Mirai, and they work. 

While there are naysayers who believe the hydrogen engines are not likely to take off, a company like Rolls Royce says: Our leading-edge hydrogen aircraft programme will conduct a comprehensive series of rig and engine tests to prove the fuel can safely and efficiently deliver power for small-mid size aircraft from the mid-2030s onwards, with ambitions to move this on to a flight test phase in the long term.”

GE is hard at getting well past 8 million hours on hydrogen engines in electrical power operations. So what causes doubt? It is the cost and the concern that the internal combustion engine per se is defunct. Yet companies like Man Energy Solutions are beavering away on a wing and a prayer on shipping exactly what must be done to aviation, cutting emissions by half before 2030.

At Montreal, there was much excitement over the Oct 9 signing of the Net zero 2050 plan. President of the ICAO Council, Mr Salvatore Sciacchitano was quoted saying, “States’ adoption of this new long-term goal for decarbonized air transport, following the similar commitments from industry groups, will contribute importantly to the green innovation and implementation momentum which must be accelerated over the coming decades to achieve emissions-free powered flight ultimately.”

“Countries have achieved some tremendous and very important diplomatic progress at this event, and on topics of crucial importance to the future sustainability of our planet and the air transport system which serves and connects its populations,” commented ICAO Secretary General Juan Carlos Salazar.

These are commendable statements, but there is a long way to go, and both Sciacchitano and Salazar are aware there is a chance the togetherness can unravel. Countries reneging on the promise are always a threat. The best that can be done is to see this ‘historic’ pact as a first rung on the ladder to the stars…if we can see them through the pollution that could threaten to blanket our atmosphere.

Let us fast forward to 2030. Down the road, really. The global fleet should reach around 40,000 aircraft by 2030, marking a 3.4% CAGR. At that time, as much as 9% of the fleet will be over 25 years old and ready to be mothballed. At present, eight years earlier, the total worldwide fleet size currently counts 28,674 aircraft, with 23,513 active and 5,161 grounded. We are looking at over 200,000 flights a day.

Add another ten years; by 2040, we will have over 41,000 new aircraft globally. According to Boeing, as many as 75% of these will be single-aisle aircraft as interiors are networked, and it is here that India will serve as a spearhead in the new equations and fuel the resurgence of aviation. By 2050, we will have 6 billion passengers in 16 million annual flights. However, aircraft will change so dramatically that a numerical estimate of how many aircraft will girdle the earth is difficult to quantify.

Suffice it to say that air travel will be inching towards cities in the sky, with sky cities becoming a future reality and aerial movement beginning to mimic the ambience of cruise ships.

Euro control writes: Against the backdrop of the European Union’s 1.5-degree target and dwindling fossil fuels, the question of aircraft propulsion of the future is becoming ever more pressing. Approximately 35,000 aircraft (excluding smaller planes and helicopters) burn about one billion litres of paraffin daily. However, that is not the only thing that harms our environment; aircraft noise also needs to be reduced – by 2050, this should fall by around two-thirds.

Nevertheless, for now, a collaboration between power plant manufacturers, research in sustainable fuel alternatives, major players like Boeing and Airbus, governments and even investors in tomorrow is the name of the game. If we do not all pull in the same direction, the advent of the climate change fallout might make 2050 a black cloud on the horizon with the human race as losers. 

Bikram Vohra is the Consulting Editor of IADB


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