Can we fly without destroying the planet?
Climate change is here and it’s real, the world is buzzing with green solutions to problems, sustainability is overused, and greenwashing has never been more popular. India in her own right is making tangible progress, slowly but surely. However, there is one sector that isn’t receiving enough attention - the aviation sector. The aviation sector across the world is growing rapidly owing to business, tourism, and immigration and it remains one of the hardest to abate in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. India needs to do more. Let’s examine why climate action is needed in this sector, the various ways in which the world is coping, what India is doing currently, and how it can do better.
Why action is needed
The International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO) facts and figures report a picture of immense growth, stating that since 1995 world passenger air traffic (expressed in Revenue Passenger-Kilometres) increased at an average annual growth rate of 5.0 percent. The aviation sector is growing at unprecedented rates. While this is a great indicator of progress, it is also a cause for concern. Here’s why: The International Council on Clean transportation’s findings reports that the aviation sector currently contributes to a total of 918 million metric tons in carbon emissions as of 2018. Within the industry, there has been a 32% increase in emissions over the past five years. According to estimates by the UN, these emissions could easily triple by 2050.
Currently, planes are as fuel-efficient as they have ever been. Today’s planes are 80% more fuel-efficient than they were in the 1950s. Newer technologies and strategies to drive costs lower have led to the grounding of less than eco-friendly planes. Despite these measures, the rising demand calls for an urgent need to look at decarbonizing strategies specific to the sector.
Now that we understand that flying comes at a hefty price, here are some of the solutions that are being considered:
In typical European fashion, the ‘flygskam ’ or flight shame movement urges passengers to opt for alternate means of transport. The movement took birth in Sweden, with Greta Thunberg further popularizing it by choosing to cross the Atlantic via boat for the 2019 United Nations Climate Summit in New York. Some airlines like KLM, have hopped on to this trend, encouraging people to consider taking a train. Studies show that the movement was successful in Sweden but not so much in other European countries. The idea is novel, no doubt but far too unrealistic for some countries to implement. While a country like France can choose to ban shorter flights to decrease emissions, a developing country that is still establishing basic infrastructure and prioritizes accessibility in the light of the pandemic, may not find it as easy.
Amongst other ideas, hydrogen and electric models of aircraft are being widely discussed with Airbus, one of the biggest names in the industry taking the lead. In 2020 Airbus revealed Zero-E a three-concept aircraft hoping to launch the first fully emission-free aircraft run on hydrogen by 2035. The project is a promising one. However, the challenges of using hydrogen as a fuel effectively, its storage and transportation, and various other logistical challenges make this an extremely complex and ambitious undertaking. For this reason and the scientifically cumbersome path that lies ahead, 2035 seems like an unrealistic target for launching a fully sustainable hydrogen aircraft. Countries like India, where major airlines such as Air India have leased most of their operating aircraft, find that switching to more efficient models is economically challenging.
Another major idea that is being accepted across the world is the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). In simple terms, sustainable aviation fuel is made of sustainable feedstock, unlike traditional jet fuel which is made of fossil fuels. Sustainable feedstock ranges from cooking oil and other non-palm waste oils from animals or plants to solid waste such as packaging, paper, textiles, and food scraps that would otherwise be incinerated or end up in a landfill. Currently, the use of sustainable aviation fuels seems to be the most practical idea across the board and can truly change the future and the aviation industry as we know it.
In the recent past, various airlines across the world have been enthusiastically incorporating SAF. Last December, United airlines. flew the world’s first fully loaded passenger flight to run on 100% sustainable aviation fuel from Chicago to Washington The passenger plane was powered solely by fuel made from cooking oils, agricultural waste, and other materials rather than fossil fuels. The airline has made promises of achieving complete carbon neutrality by 2050 More recently, JetBlue and biofuel developer SG Preston signed an agreement for producing 670 million barrels of Sustainable fuel over 10 years beginning in 2023. This was followed by an agreement between Delta, an Atlanta based airline, and Aemetis, where Aemetis would provide Delta with 250 million gallons of low carbon blended sustainable aviation fuel.
Over on the other side of the Atlantic, big names in the aircraft manufacturing business like Avions de transport régional (ATR) have been making terrific progress in their quest for sustainability. The Regional aircraft manufacturer ATR has successfully completed a round of test flights with 100% percent in one engine ATR is looking to make flying 100% SAF-based to help its customers achieve their sustainability goals.
Moving further east, Etihad Airways is setting the bar high for green practices and environmental proactiveness, by promising to become completely carbon neutral by 2050 and halving its emissions by 2035 They have invested in the development of biofuels from refined seawater and municipal waste-generated jet fuel, and have also pledged to reduce single-use plastic by the end of this year.
SAF is a great alternative and in an ideal world, all airlines would be able to fly on 100% SAF in the next few years. Alas, despite the flurry of PR announcements from airlines, SAF currently accounts for only 0.1% of aviation fuel with less than 1% of planes powered by SAF.
A focus on SAF and why airlines aren’t fully powered by SAF
Using SAF comes with serious drawbacks. Sustainable aviation fuel is currently more expensive than regular kerosene - almost three to four times more expensive. It is extremely limited in supply and big players like United Airlines have monopolized existing stocks. Most countries do not have a feedstock issue (the raw material that the fuel is made of) but lack a streamlined supply chain. A huge country like India, despite its massive aviation sector, has no SAF production plant – which is just a part of the problem. The main issue however is lies in the emergence of a market and generalizing the use of SAF. Manufacturers and fuel providers are facing issues due to high price pressure on low demand, and high risks associated with policy and investment uncertainty.
How can this problem be solved?
These problems are circular in nature and can only be solved by policy and legislative measures and governmental interference, as can be seen in the case of the EU administration and the American government. The European Commission put forward a plan in this direction called ReFuelEU Aviation and aims to increase the share of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) used in the region to at least 2% in 2025, 5% in 2030, reaching 63% in 2050 The Biden Administration also has a goal to produce 35 billion gallons of SAF by 2025. Additionally, airports in some cities like Los Angeles and Oslo have been supplying airlines with SAF since 2015 now.
The current scenario in India
In India in 2010, 79 million people travelled within and in/out of the country. By 2017 that doubled to 158 million, and this number is expected to further rise to 520 million by 2037. To support the airport infrastructure the government aims to develop 100 airports by 2024 (under the UDAN Scheme) and expects to invest over a billion US dollars in such infrastructure by 2026.
Spicejet successfully used SAF on a demo flight from Dehradun to Delhi in August 2018.
The airline is leading the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) initiative of ‘Clean Skies for Tomorrow’ (CST) and has a target to fly 100 million passengers on SAF blend flights by 2030.
IndiGo, on the other hand, signed an agreement with the Indian Institute of Petroleum under the Council of Scientific Institute of Research (CSIR-IIP) to deploy sustainable aviation fuel in India and globally. CSIR-IIP, Dehradun, is one of the leading agencies engaged in the research and production of sustainable air fuel in the country.
Despite the private sector taking some steps in the right direction, we are considerably behind in adopting and implementing these green strategies. It would be an understatement to say that we are unprepared to deal with the carbon consequences of this demand-heavy sector.
This is mainly due to a lack of governmental initiative. The main drawback with SAF is its high price. This would automatically fall if production went up, but this production relies upon demand and policy certainty, neither of which has found its place in India yet.
There is a serious need for constructive inclusion of sustainable air-fuel production and deployment in policy and legislature. As can be seen from the various solutions discussed above there is a need for citizen involvement, and push for governmental action as well as an initiative from private bodies. Like the EU, India needs to tap into the immense potential of the South Asian bloc, its scientific institutions, and its able populace to find a green flight path into the future.