• The aviation sector is investing in green technology.
  • A global effort is underway with international airlines pouring millions into innovation being developed by green tech pioneers.
  • One start-up, ZeroAvia, is among the latest cohort of World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers.

The aviation sector is facing a double challenge. COVID-19 has cost the airline industry an estimated $370 billion, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Despite the roll-out of COVID-19 vaccines, air travel may not return to 2019 levels until 2024, according to IATA international.

aeroplane airline flight industry tourism pandemic plane airport travel global hydrogen plane zero emissions
A chart showing global weekly flight frequency from January 2020 to January 2021, by country.
Image: Statista

The industry also faces growing pressure to reduce carbon emissions, in line with the international goal of reaching net-zero by 2050, which means it’s looking towards green innovation for its survival.

A new generation of innovators are coming to the fore, including zero-emission aviation specialist, ZeroAvia. It is among the World Economic Forum’s latest cohort of 100 Tech Pioneers.

Towards sustainable aviation

ZeroAvia hopes its hydrogen-electric fuelled powertrain technology will replace conventional engines in commercial planes for aircraft of all sizes. It’s initially targeting an 800km range in 10-20 seat aircraft used for commercial passenger transport, cargo and agriculture.

The company is based in the UK and US, and has already secured experimental certificates for its two prototype aircraft from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and is on track for commercial operations in 2024.

Instead of fuel, the jets run on green hydrogen and emit water vapours on taking flight.

Adoption of such technology could spell not just zero-emission flights, but also lower fuel and maintenance costs.

Founder and CEO Val Miftaknov says: “We are hoping to become one of the major engine manufacturers for the new sustainable aviation.”

The UK’s national carrier British Airways is part of a collective that has invested $24.3 million in ZeroAvia to achieve its target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Aviation

What is the World Economic Forum doing to reduce aviation's carbon footprint?

As other sectors proceed to decarbonize, the aviation sector could account for a much higher share of global greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century than its 2%-3% share today.

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) can reduce the life-cycle carbon footprint of aviation fuel by up to 80%, but they currently make up less than 0.1% of total aviation fuel consumption. Enabling a shift from fossil fuels to SAFs will require a significant increase in production, which is a costly investment.

The Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow (CST) Coalition is a global initiative driving the transition to sustainable aviation fuels as part of the aviation industry’s ambitious efforts to achieve carbon-neutral flying.

The coalition brings together government leaders, climate experts and CEOs from aviation, energy, finance and other sectors who agree on the urgent need to help the aviation industry reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The coalition aims to advance the commercial scale of viable production of sustainable low-carbon aviation fuels (bio and synthetic) for broad adoption in the industry by 2030. Initiatives include a mechanism for aggregating demand for carbon-neutral flying, a co-investment vehicle and geographically specific value-chain industry blueprints.

Learn more about the Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition's impact and contact us to find out how you can get involved.

Another member of the Tech Pioneers cohort is US-based start-up Wright Electric, which has partnered with budget airline EasyJet and business aviation services provider Jetex.

It is working on developing narrowbody aircraft that are powered by interchangeable battery packs and aims to launch a fleet for service by 2030, with a range of around 500km.

The decarbonization challenge

The aviation sector contributes to climate change by accounting for around 2.5% of the globe's carbon dioxide emissions.

But the pandemic saw aviation emissions drop by 48% in comparison to 2019, according to international watchdog Carbon Monitor.

As air travel will ultimately return to pre-COVID levels, the challenge is how to ensure the industry ‘builds back better’.

The World Economic Forum has developed its ‘Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition’ as an environmental certification system to verify that the sustainable aviation fuel purchased by corporations is of high quality. It is also working to ensure that reductions in emissions are accurately accounted for.

Meanwhile, world leaders are stepping up on commitments to decarbonize travel. In the communique released at the recent G7 summit in Cornwall, UK, leaders pledged to “focus on accelerating progress on electrification and batteries, hydrogen, carbon capture, usage and storage, zero emission aviation and shipping.”

Green aviation innovators

NASA has been working on electric planes for the past decade. It hopes to phase in electric flights for North Americans within the next 15 years.

United Airlines is also making significant investments in sustainable aviation fuel and aims to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions 100% by 2050.

It was the first commercial carrier in the US to participate in the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP) by investing in a modern, fuel-efficient fleet.

With such restructuring underway, the struggling aviation sector is devising strategies to reinvent itself by looking towards a sustainable - for both itself and the planet.