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  • Writer's pictureHeini Noronen-Juhola

What is environmental sustainability in aviation?

Environmental sustainability is a big megatrend that is affecting the aviation industry significantly. It's been estimated that currently about 3% of the world´s CO2 emissions comes from the aviation. The need to reduce the emissions is big. Therefore the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has agreed that the target for the aviation industry to reach net zero CO2 emissions would be at 2050. The trade organizations in the industry, like IATA or ACI have agreed on the same target so this is a well accepted goal for the whole industry.

Most of the times when people are talking about sustainable aviation, they are talking about sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) or electric flying. It's easy to talk about something that really relates to the aviation and can be understood by us all. Media is focusing at that as well.

Sustainable aviation fuels typically relate to aviation fuels in which the raw material is renewable. It can be for example plant oils, food waste or side flows from the wood industry. These fuels are used as mixtures with the traditional aviation fuel. On the other hand, there is also a large research area about synthetic aviation fuels, where the raw material could be for example hydrogen. The common thing to all of these is that the raw materials come from other sources besides the traditional crude oil and they can be seen as renewable. Good thing about these sustainable aviation fuels is that they can be used in the traditional combustion engines.

Electric flying is typically understood sustainable as such. In the future there will be aircrafts that carry batteries that feed electricity to the engines. Or there might be some other electricity feeding solutions, like fuel cells where the energy comes from hydrogen, but in any case the fuel is totally different from what the combustion engines use.

CORSIA, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation, that has been launched by ICAO at 2016, is stating the guidelines for the flight time CO2 emissions and their calculation. The airlines are quite consistently reporting about their environmental sustainability by these guidelines. So is this environmentally acceptable and sufficient?

When we are talking about sustainable aviation fuels and electricity created for the flight needs, we have to consider also the production and the transportation phase. If these are produced with sustainable energy sources like wind or sun, we can really talk about sustainable aviation fuels. This is many times forgotten.

The same thing applies to the other areas of aviation. When we are talking about the aircrafts and all the equipment relating to that, the materials, the production phases and the recycling should also be sustainable. The ground support tasks at the airports are an essential part of the flight operations. Are they lean, efficient and sustainable? Are the flight routes efficient and do they support efficient fuel usage?

If we are stepping totally out of the scope of the CO2 emissions, we have to understand that there are other emissions as well. The most traditional one in aviation is noise, but luckily the new aircraft types are much less noisy than the old ones. The traditional aviation fuel emissions contain on top of CO2 at least nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxides and carbon monoxides. For example nitrogen oxides cause the ozone layer thickening. Or, at airports there are various chemicals needed for the aircraft deicing or the runway meltings.

To be able to focus widely at the true impacts of the environmental sustainability in aviation, it would be important for all the stakeholders to widen the scope and see what's outside the own core focus area. It's clear that many times the environmentally sustainable actions cost money. It's easy therefore to go behind the least costly demands in actions and reporting. But for the aviation, the environmental sustainability is a question of life and death. Even though the net zero goal is currently at 2050, it might be some day renewed to be much closer. Therefore the whole industry should join forces and take a holistic approach. Nobody can do this without the support from the others in the chain. And, besides, we all live at this same globe.

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