With the appetite for air travel predicted to rise beyond pre-pandemic levels in the next 30 years, the share of global emissions from commercial aviation could reach as much as 22% in the same period if left unchecked. With that in mind, The International Air Transport Association (IATA) recently approved a resolution for the global air transport industry to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
To achieve that goal, however, the aviation and aerospace sector clearly needs to find a feasible pathway to address climate impact—and find it now. But according to Decarbonizing aviation: Cleared for take-off, a new report from Deloitte and Shell, just one approach will not be enough. This means aviation and aerospace companies will have to focus on several streams at once—including addressing their own manufacturing emissions, developing innovative applications of technology, and seriously exploring carbon-reducing alternatives such as sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) and electric aircrafts.
Control what you can: sustainable aviation manufacturing
When it comes to promoting sustainability, most entities take into account their emissions footprint along the entirety of their value chain, dividing output into three scopes. Scope 1 emissions involve carbon generated directly through the entity’s own manufacturing—for example, natural gas used to power company equipment. Scope 2 encompasses carbon produced indirectly during manufacturing and operations—such as purchasing third party-generated electricity based on fossil fuels.
What scope 1 and 2 have in common is that they are activities a company can exert some amount of control over. Aerospace companies are no different and have made good strides in diminishing their scope 1 and 2 emissions. Going forward, they need to continue to focus on those elements they control by employing a range of strategies. This includes improving product design and engineering using advanced technologies; ethically selecting and sourcing sustainable alternative materials; combining smart technologies and green energy to build factories that have less environmental impact; and streamlining shipping and distribution through supply chain reconfiguration and rationalization of trade routes to reduce carbon output.
However, scope 1 and 2 emissions within the aerospace industry only make up about 30% of their total carbon footprint. The remainder are scope 3 emissions—emissions a company is indirectly responsible for when its products are used—which are much more difficult to control. But if the industry wants to address sustainability, it must find ways to lower these emissions.
Scope 3 emissions: getting from here to there
To address scope 3 emissions, the aviation and aerospace sector will need to explore a range of approaches and new technologies that, taken together, can have a larger impact. There are a few key elements companies can focus on to make the most of their decarbonization efforts:
Innovative aircraft design: Aviation companies need to use advanced technologies to develop materials that can improve aircraft fuel efficiency and lessen environmental impact. In addition to developing more fuel-efficient engines, manufacturers should explore innovative aerodynamic designs, the use of advanced coatings, and lighter-weight materials, which have the potential to offer a 20% to 30% improvement in efficiency by 2050. Fleet renewal has a part to play here, too: putting design improvements into action resulted in a 21.4% improvement in fuel efficiency between 2009 to 2020.
New propulsion technologies: Using electric and hydrogen propulsion technologies can help achieve zero-emission aviation. While these technologies are still nascent and would require significant aircraft redesign to be deployed, the potential impact on reducing global warming from aviation merits an increased focus on innovation and investment. Collaboration with the automotive industry on battery density and hydrogen storage challenges and with shipping experts to develop hydrogen applications may help accelerate progress.
Sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs): An alternative to fossil fuels, SAFs are produced from sustainable sources, from cooking oil to forest waste to algae. SAFs can be used in the same way as traditional fuels and only release the carbon they’ve already taken out of the atmosphere, essentially achieving a net-zero effect over their lifecycle. There are also synthetic SAFs, which can be truly zero emission if produced correctly. The drawback is that, until production is ramped up, these fuels are significantly more expensive. Regulatory incentives, such as tax credits for SAF producers, financial support for airlines switching to SAFs, and national mandates to blend SAFs with traditional fuels will all help increase uptake and decrease carbon.
Efficient air traffic management (ATM): Modernizing the management of airspace to establish more efficient flight paths (direct routes means less energy used) remains a key solution to reduce energy use and emissions. The industry should proactively work with regulators to reduce fragmentation of airspace, which can further improve ATM performance.
Building and managing supporting infrastructure: Driving innovation across the new propulsion technologies, SAFs, and ATM requires developing the associated supporting infrastructure. A global network of infrastructure will be crucial to supply the electricity needed to recharge electric aircraft, hydrogen needed to propel the aircraft, and SAFs as replacement fuels in as many airports as possible.
Of course, one of the biggest challenges of any of the above elements is expense. The Deloitte report Decarbonizing aerospace: A road map for the industry’s lower-emissions future estimates that the cost of switching to electric and hydrogen propulsion alone could add up to US$125 billion by 2050. Financing will have to play a big role in accelerating the transition toward zero-emission aircraft technology. Aviation and aerospace companies should also align with the public sector to foster research and innovation activity and funding to achieve the technological breakthroughs. And having a clear road map and deliberate strategy can help aviation companies attract the private equity funds they need.
The journey to decarbonization in aviation and aerospace will not be easy. Without action, the industry could face restrictions that impact revenues and jobs, such as the banning of flights less than 500 miles. The industry will need to work closely with governments and investors, existing industry players, and startups to secure the investments that can drive innovative technologies to market and build the regulatory and infrastructure frameworks needed. By focusing on a few key elements, that journey can begin now.
To learn more about decarbonization in aviation, read the Deloitte reports Decarbonizing aerospace: A road map for the industry’s lower-emissions future and Decarbonizing aviation: Cleared for take-off or visit our Future of energy site on Deloitte.com.
The blog was originally published on Forbes on 11 November 2021.
 Air Transport Action Group, “Facts & figures,” accessed September 6, 2021.
John is the leader of Deloitte’s US and global Aerospace & Defense (A&D) practice. John has 25 years of consulting experience focusing on global companies with highly-engineered products in the A&D, Industrial Products and Automotive industries. John advises senior executives on driving impactful and sustained performance improvement, through both top-line growth and margin improvement initiatives. He has led large-scale transformation efforts to help businesses with strategic cost transformation and operations/supply chain initiatives. John has an undergraduate degree from Lafayette College in Business & Economics and Government & Law and an MBA from Duke University.