Airlines’ ambitions & actions need to gain altitude

/ New Delhi
Airlines’ ambitions & actions need to gain altitude

Qatar's national carrier Qatar Airways has committed to becoming a NetZero airline by 2050

Like their peers elsewhere in the world, notably in the West, Middle East carriers have begun to move towards sustainability. However, global aviation industry needs to urgently scale up their ambitions and actions in going green.
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The last few months have seen a string of announcements by various airlines in the Middle East reinforcing their move towards introducing sustainability across the entire value chain. On January 30, Dubai-based Emirates said that by 2030, sustainable aviation fuel will power 50 pc of all its fuel supply. The same day, the airline also operated its first demonstration flight on a Boeing 777-300ER, powering one of its engines with 100 pc Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF).

Meanwhile, in the neighbouring Emirate, Abu Dhabi, a number of companies joined hands to launch a feasibility study that could lead to the region’s first commercial production of sustainable aviation fuel, developed by using municipal solid waste and renewable hydrogen.

The companies involved in the landmark venture include smart city Masdar, Abu Dhabi’s state-owned oil company, ADNOC, British oil giant BP, Abu Dhabi waste management company Tadweer and Etihad Airways. The companies say that besides SAF, other products such as renewable diesel and naphtha could also be produced during the process. Months earlier, Etihad had also become the first commercial airline in the world to sign a partnership with World Energy, a carbon-net-zero solutions provider to establish a long-term strategic partnership to decarbonise flights through in-sector emissions reductions.

In neighbouring Qatar, the national carrier Qatar Airways has committed to becoming a NetZero airline by 2050, in line with an agreement piloted by International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) at COP27 climate change summit in Glasgow in 2021.

“Qatar Airways has committed to reach net zero emissions by 2050. As leading airline on environmental sustainability, we are constantly working in collaboration with the international organisations, industry bodies and relevant stakeholders towards achieving our ambitious mid-term and long-term climate goals,’’ Karthik Vishwanathan, Regional Manager, Indian Sub-continent, of Qatar Airways tells India Outbound.

Vishwanathan adds that Qatar Airways reduces its carbon footprint in line with the industry’s four-pillar decarbonisation strategy of technology, infrastructure and operations, Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), and market- based measures. ‘‘Qatar Airways continues to invest in the most modern and efficient aircraft, engines and technological solutions that reduce carbon emissions. Also, the airline continues to enhance fuel optimisation programmes. The Qatar Airways Group also optimises the use of energy, implements waste and water management programmes as part of the sustainability strategy,’’ he says.

Many airlines around the world have invested heavily in developing SAF, which is produced from sustainable feedstocks

‘‘In the Middle East, sustainable tourism initiatives are gaining momentum, led by airlines such as Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, which are making progress towards NetZero targets and reducing emissions intensity,’’ Steve Odinga of market research firm Euromonitor International tells India Outbound.

Odinga adds that Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways are at the forefront of sustainable aviation in the GCC region. He says that both the airlines have launched initiatives to reduce their environmental impact by investing in sustainable aviation fuel, more efficient aircraft and operational practices, and a programme to offset carbon emissions. Odinga says that Dubai Airports has launched initiatives to reduce its environmental impact by implementing energy-efficient systems and investing in renewable energy sources.

Etihad also conducted a novel test in collaboration with Satavia, a British company that aims to prevent 60 pc of the aviation industry’s climate impact by tackling contrails, which is essentially water vapour that condenses as ice onto soot particles emitted from aircraft engines and can heighten the effect of global warming. According to a study cited by Satavia, contrails may account for more than half of the entire climate impact of aviation.

Last year, Etihad carried out another ground breaking test, operating 42 flights with use of SAFs. “We believe this is the most intensive sustainability flight testing programme ever conducted, the results of which will contribute to reducing aviation’s carbon emissions and environmental impact as the learnings are implemented into standard airline operations across the industry,” Tony Douglas, CEO of Etihad had said on the occasion.

Lack of clear data

Calculating air transport’s contribution to global warming is extremely complex due to the nature of the business. On the surface, air travel accounts for 2.5 pc of global carbon dioxide emissions. However, this includes only the domestic flights, for which emissions are attributed to the country where the flight takes place. As international flights account for a large share of total distance covered by airlines across the world, it is evident that a big chunk of carbon emissions of the aviation industry remains unaccounted for. Instead, they are put in their own category of ‘bunker fuels’ and since it is not attributed to any one nation, there is little incentive for the governments or the airlines to cut these emissions.

The other challenge in measuring aviation industry’s role in global warming lies in the fact that besides the common greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide, nitrous oxides or methane, airplanes also emit other gases, which are not counted by the Paris Climate Change Agreement and hence are overlooked, even though they do contribute to global warming. Thus most experts estimate that aviation contributes somewhere closer to 4 pc of total global greenhouse gas emissions, in terms of refractive index.

Some environmentalists say that since air travel is necessarily preceded by a travel to and from an airport, the emissions attributable to aviation needs to include this data as well.

Nonetheless, airlines are taking steps to cut down their emissions. One is to get airplane manufacturers to develop lighter aircraft, using composites rather than aluminium. They have also improved the efficiency of aircraft engines and are tweaking aircraft aerodynamically to reduce friction while flying.

But the biggest gains can come in fuel, which accounts for over 80 pc of total carbon emissions and many airlines around the world have invested heavily in developing SAF, which is produced from sustainable feedstocks, such as municipal solid waste and renewable hydrogen.

Leading the march towards these ‘green’ fuels are American carriers as Delta, United and American have all invested or earmarked for investment hundreds of millions of dollars in development of SAFs. Delta, for instance, has announced USD 1 billion investment in the project which is part of its ambitious goal of going carbon neutral by 2030, a target which will make it the first global carrier to reach that historic milestone. While low-cost carrier Jet Blue has set a target for 2040, United has put its NetZero deadline as 2050.

Etihad carried out another ground breaking test, operating 42 flights with use of SAFs

The American carriers have also entered into contracts with leading manufacturers of SAF around the world to ensure supply. For instance, United has signed up a deal with Fulcrum Bioenergy, which is setting up eight plants to provide 1.5 billion litres of SAF every year to United, Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines.

Compared to these, the carriers based in the Gulf are not particularly bad placed. Qatar Airways has committed to use 10 pc SAF for its fuel mix by 2030 and says that it is already in discussion on how to achieve this target. Last year, it signed an offtake agreement with Gevo, a US SAF producer, for a five-year contract for supply of 19 million litres of neat SAF per year from 2028.

Airlines are moving towards ending use of disposable plastics onboard

However, the entire region is dependent upon overseas manufacturers for their supplies of SAF. A senior official of Emirates admitted the challenge facing the companies. ‘‘SAF fuel is a challenge that we face as an industry today. If this fuel can be made available at 50 pc of our use by 2030, that will be a great achievement,” Adel Ahmad Al Redha, COO of Emirates, had said during the test flight in January.

He suggested that sustainable fuel manufacturers and new companies will have to commit and deliver SAF, including to the UAE’s neighbouring countries and others. “SAF is a worldwide commitment and no company can depend on one producer because the research and development cost is quite high at the beginning,” Al Redha was quoted on the occasion.

In this context, the feasibility study being done by Abu Dhabi companies is certainly welcome as the biggest challenge for airlines would be tying up suppliers of SAF in order to meet their goals. Currently, less than 0.1 pc of global aviation fuel is sustainable, while consumption of conventional jet fuel by just one large airline like United amounts to 15 billion litres a year, indicating the distance that the airlines need to travel to meet their goals.

Qatar Airways says that it has implemented over 70 fuel optimisation projects since 2015, largely focussing on operational efficiency, with measures like improved flight paths and more efficient routes, weight management, single engine taxiing and optimal APU usage. Vishwanathan says that Qatar Airways was the first Middle Eastern airline to join the IATA Turbulence Aware data exchange platform, which ensures a smoother journey in the air with a lower fuel burn.

Emissions can be cut not just by modernising the planes or adopting SAF. Many other tweaks, which involve regulators, air traffic controllers and other external players are also needed for aviation industry to achieve its targets. “The other big area, which has a simple solution but requires fundamental restructure to the way things currently work, is for the industry, traffic controllers and regulators to modernise flight paths for controlled climbs and continuous descent. In our demonstration EcoFlights we have been able to take at least 40 minutes out of flight times and reduce the CO2 content by around six tonnes, which is incredible,” Tony Douglas has been quoted as saying.

There are a wide range of measures to bring down carbon emissions, such as reduced engine taxiing. Most of the ground movements are conducted using only the power of one engine. By shutting down a single engine of the aircraft when it lands, airlines can reduce carbon emissions produced by 20-40 pc.

‘‘Decarbonising the aviation industry requires the efforts of all stakeholders and users of the aviation industry. The main promising solutions for carbon reductions lie in research and development of more efficient aircraft and engines, enhancement of air routes through the support of governments to reduce congestion and fly times. Also, the development of SAF at large commercial scale to meet industry demand and at reasonable prices,’’ says Qatar Airways’ Vishwanathan.

He adds that Qatar Airways has reduced more than 70 pc of single use plastics in its onboard food offering. ‘‘Whilst we are working towards procuring alternatives for SUP, the regulations on the difference in the definition of SUP across various jurisdictions and the availability of a sustainable alternative remains a challenge,’’ he adds.

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