Environmental, Social & Governance

Sustainability in civil aviation: Large steps forward but a long road ahead

April 6, 2022 | Article | 5-minute read

Sustainability in civil aviation: Large steps forward but a long road ahead

This article was first published on March 6, 2022, on the Forbes website.


The year 2050 marks an important milestone in the global campaign to mitigate the effects of climate change, with more than 100 nations committed to ushering in a carbon net zero era. Reaching that destination by the century’s midpoint will require unparalleled innovation in private-public partnerships and substantial investments of money, talent, technology and time, especially in civil aviation.


While the aviation sector contributes less than 3% of the planet’s industrial carbon output, executives at leading carriers recognize they can’t stand idle. "It's no longer enough for us to connect the world without making sure it has a future," United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, a prominent proponent of this effort, has said.

“Collaboration and cooperation, not the competition that has so far defined commercial flying, will have to become the new mission for carriers as they chart their path forward.”

Civil aviation is a “hard-to-abate industry,” though, without ready-made solutions. The approaches believed to be most effective have challenges—below are a few with some examples:

  • Not available in sufficient quantity: Sustainable aircraft fuel (SAF) that lowers an aircraft’s CO2 emissions by upward of 80% versus conventionally sourced kerosene is not available to use at scale.
  • Constrained by some regulation: SAF must be blended at a maximum of 50% with traditional jet fuel.
  • Haven’t moved from the drawing board to the tarmac: Passenger planes powered by liquid hydrogen or hydrogen fuel cells aren’t yet ready for significant commercial deployment.
  • Tied to legacy operations and long-term contracts: Airline contracts with airport ground vehicles constrain them from replacing catering vehicles, refueling trucks, transporters and other vehicles with battery-operated ones.

To help ensure it makes sustained and visible progress, United Airlines’ Lauren Riley, chief sustainability officer, says United will trim is carbon emissions, on a per-passenger mile basis, to half of its 2019 levels by 2035.


“We hear all the time from our passengers, investors and key stakeholders that they can’t really relate to 2050. It's too far away, so we needed a near-term target that was still meaningful in demonstrating progress,” she told me. “Scott and I have talked about the responsibility we carry at United, and also aviation at large in our contribution to climate change, and how we need bold action and change to see the kind of progress that is really going to pull down emissions. What that meant to us is that he agreed to roll up our sleeves and take on the harder path of truly decarbonizing within our operations.”


United isn’t the only airline interested in going green, of course. Actions it and other industry leaders take in keeping their own pledges to be carbon neutral by 2050—and the lessons they learn on the way—can help other airlines create flight plans to reduce their carbon footprint and establish a baseline for measuring progress.


“Leading the way to make flying more sustainable has always been deep in our DNA,” said Christina Foerster, chief customer officer at Lufthansa Group. “Only together will we achieve the next leap in innovation.”

Making sense of “carbon neutrality” in the airline industry

Think of an airline’s carbon footprint as an equation: the amount of carbon it emits from operations minus carbon offsets, i.e., the neutralization of carbon emissions through non-operational, carbon-reduction projects. Purchasing carbon offsets by funding reforestation and renewable energy projects is easier and can provide the initial thrust airlines need. The bigger challenge, however, is reducing emissions from core operations. These initiatives will take time to incubate and mature. Greater use of SAF can trim the greenhouse gas emissions planes produce, and ventures to build hydrogen fuel cell-powered aircraft capable of carbon-free regional flights are getting off the ground. Within a decade, carrier partnerships with companies such as 1PointFive promise carbon-capture technology to remove and sequester CO2 from the atmosphere or reuse it to produce power-to-liquid SAF. While these efforts will take time to come to fruition, they are the transformations the industry needs to achieve true carbon neutrality.

You can’t fly solo

Collaboration and cooperation, not the competition that has so far defined commercial flying, will have to become the new mission for carriers as they chart their path forward on sustainability. While airlines acting alone can’t decarbonize flying, they have the collective financial (i.e., purchasing) and political power to create industry task forces and ensure suppliers, policymakers and like-minded corporations are onboard. Vendors such as Shell Aviation, for example, recently published a joint report detailing its efforts to decarbonize flying.


Federal lawmakers and regulators can help with critical changes in public policy. As I mentioned earlier, airlines need to be able to increase the percentage of SAF they can use in their fuel blends. Tax incentives to lower the cost of production for SAF can help make it available in the quantity carriers need.


Aircraft manufacturers are similarly stepping up to the challenge. Airbus has announced plans to deliver hydrogen-powered aircraft by 2035. Boeing said all the planes it manufactures will operate on 100% sustainable aircraft fuel by 2030.

Getting to carbon net zero will take a village

As leisure travel returns to pre-pandemic levels, aviation’s share of greenhouse gas emissions is expected to rise with the business’ recovers. Especially as other transportation sector players such as automakers record significant per-passenger-mile gains by electrifying their fleets, airlines may see their performance dip before it can rebound.


Airlines are acting across a broad spectrum of initiatives. American Airlines has assembled the youngest—and a more fuel-efficient—U.S. fleet, for example. Other airlines are eking out fuel efficiency gains and optimizing routes to burn less fuel, some with the assistance of artificial intelligence and increasing their use of SAF. They’re jettisoning nonessential paper and single-use plastic products to reduce weight and waste. Singapore Airlines locally sources meals for the world’s longest flight from Newark, New Jersey, to Singapore with an innovative farm-to-plane concept so fresh ingredients aren’t schlepped across the country.


Whether the civil aviation industry can achieve a carbon net future by 2050 remains to be seen, but more attention and resources are undoubtedly being committed to this initiative than ever before.

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