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Alternative Approach: Mark your calendar

Airbus and Boeing are setting different courses to help the aviation industry reach IATA’s ambitious 2050 net-zero carbon goal

November 9, 2021  By David Carr

The next major commercial aircraft launch will almost certainly be the Airbus A220-500. A larger derivative of the baseline CSeries with potential to become the thoroughbred of the A220 stable. What follows is a tougher bet. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has committed the industry to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Less than 30 years from now, when it is estimated that traffic levels will hit 10 billion passengers a year. Net zero refers to not adding to the amount of heat trapping greenhouse gasses already in the atmosphere, and will require a level of offsets and carbon capturing in addition to advances in aircraft technology. 

There is a need to cut emissions to meet passenger demand growth. Indeed, IATA estimates that to reach its target, a total of 21.2 gigatons of carbon needs to be cut between now and 2050. A gigaton is equivalent to a billion times more mass than a metric ton. Meaning that the next generation of clean-sheet designs is going to represent a leap in technology as great as the arrival of the jet age and transition to wide-bodied aircraft, over a span of approximately 25 years.

A starting point will be the International Civil Aviation Organization’s Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation that sets out to stabilize emissions at 2019 levels for now. Over a longer term, IATA suggests that 65 per cent of its zero-emission target will be realized by sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), with a further 13 per cent coming from propulsion technology breakthroughs like hydrogen. SAF versus hydrogen appears to have triggered the biggest course diversion between Airbus and Boeing on the future of market trends since the A380 went nose to nose with the 787, a bet that Airbus hedged with the A350.

Hydrogen is lighter than conventional jet fuel, emits clean water and packs three-times more energy per unit of mass; and 100 times greater than the lithium-ion battery that helps power Boeing’s ground-breaking 787. Experiments on hydrogen-propelled aircraft have been going on since the 1950s. Hydrogen is also highly combustible, cost prohibitive to produce in current specialized quantities and requires four times the storage capacity. And, there is no available commercial engine to support hydrogen-powered flight. That will change. 


Airbus is going bold, committing to build a short-to-medium range hydrogen-powered aircraft by 2035. The company is currently studying three concept aircraft known as ZEROe, including a turboprop, turbofan and blended-wing option. Airbus has signed a memorandum of understanding with Air New Zealand on a joint study to explore the potential for hydrogen-powered aircraft operations. “Hydrogen is one of the most promising technology vectors to allow mobility; to continue fulfilling the basic human need for mobility in better harmony with our environment,” Gravia Vitaldini, Airbus’ CTO, told the BBC.

Boeing, which experimented with hydrogen in 2000, is sceptical of the 2035-timeframe and is casting its lot with the 65 per cent; the alternative fuel solutions IATA believes will lead the march to zero-emissions. “Many of our improvements come with a lot of small things at once,” Mike Sinnett, Boeing’s VP of Product Development told Reuters. “Focusing on SAF is really important because there are thousands of airplanes already flying. The airplanes that will go into service for the next 10 years have already been designed and those engines have been certified.”

Boeing has committed to 100 per cent of its fleet operating on SAF by 2030. IATA estimates that only 23 billion litres of alternative fuel (5.2 per cent of the total fuel requirement) will be available by then, and does not see production of SAF reaching 50 per cent of the requirement before 2045.

Re-engineering the world’s air transport system will not come cheap. Both hydrogen and SAF have quite the cost curve to bend to compete with kerosene, including mass production, distribution and storage. The Airbus ZEROe initiative is the centrepiece of a European Union multi-billion-euro green stimulus fund. It is unlikely Boeing will launch a net-zero program without significant government backing. And, airplanes aren’t the only piece of the air transport ecosystem, which includes airports, fuel distribution and other bits of infrastructure. There is a lot of retooling ahead. | W


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