Can the aviation industry achieve its ambitious carbon neutral goal by 2050?

It's crazy to think about it, but the year 2050 is only thirty years away! In early February, the UK aviation sector committed to the goal of making air travel 100% carbon neutral by the middle of the 21st century, despite additions of 100 million additional passengers taking to the skies into their airspace system each year.

Airlines such as Delta Air Lines have been retiring their older aircraft - in Delta's case, this Boeing 757 registered N527US is 'stored' at Pinal Airpark. Photo by Cole McAndrew │ AeroNewsX

At a celebratory event in London, managers of airports, airlines and aircraft manufacturers lined up to endorse their names on a Net Zero pledge card from the Sustainable Aviation (SA) campaign. The organization Greenpeace described it as greenwash, (disinformation disseminated by an organization so as to present an environmentally responsible public image) however aviation figures insist the ambition is genuine.

John Holland-Kaye, a Heathrow Airport executive, said in a statement: “I imagine it’s like it is for alcoholics. The first step is to admit we have a problem – and then do something about it. I’m not sure what the 10 points on the AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) program are, but you can find the equivalent in the SA roadmap."

The steps towards operating a completely carbon-neutral air travel system will need aircraft engine development to take leaps and bounds forward, both with future fuels and aircraft technology, and human capacity to continuously offset emissions.

But just how does a growing industry plan to reduce its annual footprint from just over 36m tons of CO2 to net zero in thirty years' time?

Aircraft such as the Boeing 787 or the Airbus A350 already produce significantly less than the older twins quad jets (such as the A340, 747, 777, 767, etc.) that they are replacing. through lighter materials and more efficient engines.

Sustainable Aviation anticipates that emissions will drop by a third on routes operated by four-engined aircraft, as they are set phased out within a decade or so. The next iteration of the manufacturers’ short-haul workhorses are supposed to be 10%-15% more efficient – demonstrated with the A320neo superseding A320s, although the ground stop of the Boeing 737 MAX aircraft has caused airlines to delay their retirement schedules for older, more inefficient aircraft.

Altogether different types of propulsion will be in operation by the 2030s, manufacturers believe. But while new electric planes could revolutionize regional flights, and hybrid-electric could manage short-haul flying, their contribution to cutting UK emissions – about 65% of which hail from flights of more than 1,000 miles – will be comparatively minor by 2050, SA admits.

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