The challenge of greening the air transport sector


The article analyses the current state of the civil aviation industry, in terms of carbon emissions and environmental impact, through data provided by the European Commission. The matter is analyzed specifically in light of the recent push for a green conversion of every sector. Some of the main takeaways are that the current state of technology, in particular energy storage, does not allow for zero-emission aircraft in the near term, especially for medium/long flights. Combining this issue with other threats, and it seems likely that the aviation industry might experience significant disruption. The decarbonization efforts, before the zero-emission aircraft are going to be ready, can start with a carbon-neutral airport, that leverages all the currently existing green technologies to start the effort where possible.

The air transport sector, while not the most important CO2 emitter, accounts for about 14% of the emissions from transport, making it the second-biggest source of CO2 emissions in the transport field, after road transport. Crucially, despite the increase in aircraft efficiency, with a 24% reduction of fuel burned per passenger between 2005 to 2017, the emissions from the sector have drastically increased, due to the growth in air traffic, with a 60% increase from 2015 to 2017.

The European Green Deal is asking all industry actors to make transport drastically less polluting. Although this topic has been around for many years, now the push is stronger than ever because of the current climate crisis. Other sectors have already started strong pushes to reduce CO2 emissions, thanks to new technologies, that are both technically effective, and competitive also on a price standpoint with the polluting ones, like photovoltaic panels, wind turbines and LED lights in the energy sector, electric cars in the automotive sector, and “fake-meat” in the food industry.

One of the main issues with airplanes, is the need for high energy density, in terms of energy/weight ratio. For this reason, the battery technology that is currently used in EVs isn’t suitable for commercial aviation. At the moment, in fact, no zero-emission airplane technology is at technology readiness level 6 or above, but the future looks promising, with two main technologies on the horizon: hydrogen and battery electric. While these technologies are not ready at the moment, the increased push on sustainability for the aviation industry and the accelerated technological development of these energy-storage systems for other purposes (cars, trucks) makes these technologies likely to be deployed in the medium term. (10-20 years).

Still, in the meantime, the aviation industry risks being the black sheep of the climate transition. Together with the impact that Covid-19 is having on air transport, and the push for new high-speed trains, that offer more certain results in terms of CO2 reduction, the aviation industry is going to experience a phase of significant disruption.

Some partial solution might help the industry to pass this transition period, carbon offsetting is the most important one, while emissions from planes can’t be eliminated right away, the compensation through reforestation and energy conversion initiatives in developing countries might offer a partial and temporary solution. 

At the same time, it’s crucial for the air-transport industry as a whole, to start decarbonizing all the pieces of the puzzle where the current technology can offer solutions, starting from airports, that can potentially be already converted to carbon-neutrality. These results can be achieved by using a combination of photovoltaic panels, wind turbines, and static battery storage on the energy production side, and LED lighting, efficient HVAC (Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning) systems, electric handling vehicles on the consumption side.

In conclusion, while the air-travel industry adapts to the new technical challenges brought up by the current climate crisis, by developing new aircraft technologies, a first step in the right direction might be that of the decarbonization of airports.

This article has been written by the students of the Luiss new Msc in Law, Digital Innovation and Sustainability in the context of the class of Law and Policy of Innovation and Sustainability taught by Professor Christian Iaione. The cluster “Automotive and Transportation” is composed by the following students: Antonino Giulio Cesarano, Francesco Daniele, Alessandro Fiastri, Albert Gimenez Busquets, Judith Kankam-boateng, Patricia Martinez Olondo and Laura Pantone.