Technology offers air industry a route to net zero
Inevitably, one of the most prominent areas to come under scrutiny at Cop26 will be the transport sector and in particular, aviation.
Prof Chris Gerada, associate pro-vice- chancellor for industrial strategy, business engagement and impact at the University of Nottingham, points out that the UK was the first major aviation sector in the world to commit to net zero CO2 by 2050 and underlined this pledge with interim decarbonisation targets of at least 15 per cent by 2030 and 40 per cent by 2040.
However, Gerada adds, commercial aircraft in the sky are predicted to double in the next 20 years, with emissions soaring in their wake, and by 2050 nine billion passengers will fly every year. It is a highly visible industry and an obvious target, with criticisms including the fact that journeys are energy intensive and dependent on fossil fuel and the fact that the relatively low prices of tickets means that passengers don’t see the real environmental impacts of flying.
Jonathan Hinkles is chief executive of Loganair, the UK’s largest regional airline, based at Glasgow International Airport and with more than 40 aircraft flying to destinations across Europe, Scandinavia and the British Isles. He is realistic about the challenge.
“All forms of transport have got a job to do to first and foremost reduce their impact on the environment as rapidly as they can, and then in the medium term decarbonise as quickly as possible.
“Frankly, that doesn’t matter whether you’re in aviation, shipping, or the rail industry – we’ve all got the same challenge to face and we’ve all got the same job to do.”
It’s important, Hinkles adds, to tackle this without getting into finger pointing between different modes of transport as to who is most culpable.
“I do take exception somewhat to the rail industry, where there’s almost a view that they don’t need to do things because they’re better than everyone else already. That isn’t the case and the sooner we all get together to focus on improvements the better.”
Loganair, he says, has a commitment to be carbon neutral by 2040. “And we will be doing that through a combination of technologies including electrical and hydrogen, which for the types of aircraft that we fly on regional and domestic is eminently practical within that time scale.”
The airline has also introduced GreenSkies, a new £30,000 community grant scheme dedicated to supporting local renewable energy projects across Scotland. It will be released in three instalments of £10,000, with applicants able to access a maximum grant of £5,000 per project. The initiative is open to communities across Scotland and will help to establish projects such as small-scale wind systems, solar panels, small-scale hydro power, and air source heat pumps.
Loganair is also an active partner in three UK Research and Innovation funded Future Flight projects to design, test and certificate new technology for use in the regional airline sector involving the prospects for hydrogen powered aircraft development, battery electric hybrid powered aircraft, and Project SATE based at Kirkwall airport which is developing the infrastructure for future aircraft testing.
Ampaire, the US-based electric battery aircraft manufacturer, conducted trials between Wick and Kirkwall, Loganair’s Orkney base, in August with the support of Loganair pilots and engineers.
“These technologies are still in development and testing and then we’ve got to go through the process of getting them certificated for passenger carrying use and in the meantime the emissions from every Loganair flight are being offset using gold standard, certified carbon offsets,” says Hinkles.
“This is a £1 GreenSkies charge on ticket prices which is getting across to customers very clearly the fact that flying does have an environmental impact,” he adds.
All Scottish flights could become carbon neutral by offsetting their impact on the environment with bold schemes such as solar power in hospitals or schools, according to Edinburgh Airport chief executive Gordon Dewar, who believes that “the enemy is carbon, it’s not aviation” and that the strategy is the “true bridge to our carbon-free aviation future, which, including the announcement of significant investment in an on-site solar farm, is the most significant step the airport has ever taken in this area.”
Speaking at the at the Scottish Passenger Agents Association’s centenary dinner, Dewar was in harmony with Jonathan Hinkles, stressing: “Let us, as Scotland’s travel industry, take responsibility for some or all of the aviation carbon emitted while our customers were in the air.
“We know that airlines can’t take all the pain themselves, and why should they, when we all benefit from what they do?” Of course, the responsibility for achieving net zero carbon doesn’t lie with industry alone. Operator Jet2 said last month there had been a “phenomenal” consumer reaction since the announcement that the travel traffic light system was to be dropped with “huge” demand for foreign holidays expected in coming weeks.
Trails of destruction
Much beloved by photographers in Scotland for the Saltire flag effect they frequently form following jet aircraft flying high in clear blue skies, it is now becoming apparent that aircraft condensation trails – known as contrails – and their associated radiation may be even more harmful to the atmosphere than emissions from planes themselves.
They have a particularly pernicious effect, both reflecting incoming sunlight, which has a cooling effect, and trapping heat beneath them. “They are one of the few manifestations of man-made climate change agents that you can actually observe,” said David Lee, an atmospheric scientist at Manchester Metropolitan University, in an article in New Scientist magazine earlier this year.
Dr Marc Stettler, transport and environment lecturer at Imperial College London, recently claimed that changing the altitude of just two per cent of flights by a few thousand feet could potentially reduce climate change linked to contrails by a huge 59 per cent. It is among the varied and imaginative solutions to climate change that will have to be considered by the leaders at Cop26 – a great number of whom, ironically, will have travelled to Glasgow on international flights trailing these wispy white contrails.
Among the answers could be using renewable energy to turn carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into synthetic kerosene. This would halve the warming effect from contrails.