More airlines are eyeing tech like biofuels, carbon capture, and electric-powered planes to hit sustainability goals and reduce costs.
The aerospace industry is moving to lower its carbon emissions.
Delta, for instance, has committed $1B to sustainability programs like carbon offsets and more fuel-efficient planes. In 2018, United Airlines said that it wanted to become carbon neutral by 2050, IAG set the same goal not long after.
Although improvements in fuel efficiency seen in recent years can help lower emissions per mile traveled, conventional jet fuels will always remain heavy sources of pollution. In response, airlines are betting on a set of renewable technologies including sustainable biofuels, carbon capture, and electric engines in an effort to drastically cut the amount of greenhouse gas the industry adds to the atmosphere.
However, these emerging technologies and alternative fuels can be costly and currently face regulatory hurdles. Some technologies, like Airbus’ ZEROe hybrid-hydrogen planes, may not have viable prototypes for years. As such, airlines will need to find ways to balance future-looking bets on new tech with near-term emissions goals.
Below, we use CB Insights data to look at renewable tech in aerospace and what airlines might adopt next.
- Biofuels provide a way to make existing fuels more sustainable and tackle waste problems but may require regulatory incentives or government programs to be financially viable.
- Carbon offsets alone might be insufficient for airlines to achieve emissions goals, but carbon capture could improve this approach by providing a way to turn combustion byproducts into a new fuel source for airlines.
- Electric aircraft offer compelling environmental advantages but lightweight energy storage requirements remain a major barrier to adoption.
Why airline emissions from jet fuel?
The high level of emissions from jet fuels make them a crucial element in reducing airlines’ environmental impact — commercial aviation is responsible for 2.5% of the world’s CO2 emissions, according to Our World in Data.
Although aircraft fuel efficiency has steadily improved, increases in passenger numbers are predicted to wipe out these gains. But some estimates predict that new sustainable fuels could cut airline emissions by as much as 80% — the potential emissions reduction for electric planes is even higher. How planes are powered will be a critical consideration for airlines as they set carbon neutrality goals.
Though sustainable fuels can be expensive, advocates for biofuels and air-to-fuel alternatives say that strengthened carbon regulations and taxes could make them cost-competitive with traditional jet fuel. Additionally, by blending biofuels with conventional jet fuels, airlines can incrementally improve sustainability while also making their fuel costs a bit more predictable.
Currently, electric-powered planes — which could make flying much cleaner — have not given rise to viable offerings for commercial airliners, but the approach will likely gain momentum with further investment and advances in battery technology.