Innovation takes off: How Airbus is spearheading sustainable aviation

Man on tight rope
  • Insight
  • 4 Minute Read
  • November 10, 2023

The aviation industry cannot ignore net zero, but can it get there by 2050? Airbus thinks so.

Looking for innovative ways to decarbonise, Airbus is drawing inspiration from nature. ‘We’re investigating technologies where we can mimic the flight of migrant birds to reduce the drag on aircraft and optimise fuel efficiency over long distances,’ says Nicolas Chretien, the aerospace company’s SVP head of sustainability and environment.

But drawing insights from the avian world is just one piece of the puzzle. To reach net zero by 2050, the aerospace industry must execute a tremendous shift in operations. For Airbus, the world’s largest airplane manufacturer with 661 commercial aircraft delivered in 2022, this means lower-emissions manufacturing processes and materials, low-carbon and disruptive technologies and sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).

Commitments go beyond the organisation

The company’s targets include a commitment to radically reduce its Scope 1 and 2 industrial emissions and to align with the Paris Agreement’s goal to limit global warming to 1.5⁰C. A huge scale-up in renewable energy is central to these plans: Airbus aims to source up to 100% renewable energy for all its European sites by 2024, which will help to reduce the carbon footprint of its industrial activities by up to 63% by 2030.

For its European manufacturing sites, Airbus is entering into power purchase agreements (PPAs), which gives it access to wind and solar power at stable rates. It also hopes to extend that access to its supply chain partners. The aim, says Chretien, is to steer those partners towards the same goals as Airbus and help the wider supply chain to decarbonise.

‘There is potential to make PPAs more accessible for our supply chain—specifically for smaller-tier suppliers,’ he says. ‘Ultimately, we are encouraging the supply chain towards a broader sustainability commitment. We not only look at their climate impact, but also engage with them on greater circularity and efficiency in their industrial processes and sourcing.’

Fuel for the future of aviation

One of the most important steps towards the decarbonisation of the sector is the development of SAF. This fuel requires no aeroplane modifications and can reduce lifecycle CO2 emissions by up to 80% compared with conventional jet fuel. The challenge, however, is sparking demand across the industry to reduce cost and increase supply.

‘It becomes much more costly as you switch to SAF, because of the low volume and the low supply,’ says Chretien. ‘Today, SAF represents less than 0.1% of total fuel usage but Airbus’s latest generation aircraft are already capable of flying with up to 50% SAF. So there is a tremendous potential that we can already develop within the current capability.’

“There is a tremendous potential for SAF that we can already develop within the current capability.”

NICOLAS CHRETIEN,SVP HEAD OF SUSTAINABILITY AND ENVIRONMENT, AIRBUS

Airbus is leading by example. Since 2019, SAF has been used in the operation of the company’s Beluga transport aircraft for internal logistics purposes. In 2022, flight test activities also started using SAF as part of the company’s revised greenhouse gas emissions reduction plan. And in December 2022, Airbus launched its first test campaign to explore the use of renewable fuel for its fleet of maritime vessels over the course of 18 months. The share of unblended SAF used in these industrial activities will increase to at least 30% by 2030 with an interim target of 10% by the end of 2023, equivalent to 33.1mn litres blended SAF.

These efforts help to demonstrate the business case for even higher SAF usage, and Airbus is preparing its vehicles for a future in which SAF is standard. The company is working to make all of its aircraft capable of flying with 100% SAF by the end of this decade, and has already been conducting test flights to this end.

Hydrogen is next

But sustainable aviation depends on multiple solutions, and Airbus is also exploring the possibility of liquid hydrogen as a future fuel. When hydrogen is generated through renewable energy it results in green hydrogen – a decarbonised greenhouse gas emissions fuel. Unlike SAF, however, hydrogen requires design changes to the aircraft, such as modified gas turbine engines, and the creation of hydrogen production, storage, distribution and supply infrastructure.

To support the development of green hydrogen, companies from different industries are now partnering up to create new value chains. Airbus is paving the way for hydrogen-based aviation with a consortium of ‘hydrogen ecosystem’ partners, including Air New Zealand, Hiringa Energy and Fortescue Industries. Each is contributing its expertise to developing this low-carbon fuel and the infrastructure to support it.
‘We have multiple partnerships looking at fuel cell and hydrogen combustion technologies and hydrogen storage, but also at developing demonstrator engines,’ says Chretien. ‘We are looking not just at the platform itself but also at the full ecosystem.’

Several factors will determine the commercial success of alternative aviation fuels, such as supportive policy and regulation and a balance of supply and demand. But Chretien says that collaborative efforts show ‘there is a trajectory for us to move away from fossil fuels’, which is encouraging.

‘We have to send a stronger signal that at industry level, we are willing to engage and to converge,’ he says. ‘I hope we can demonstrate that aviation can be part of the solution.’

This article was produced in collaboration with The Financial Times as part of the PwC-sponsored Energy Intersections content series and was first published on pwc.ft.com on September 4, 2023.

 

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