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COVID restart: Towards a sustainable future for aviation

International aviation can be a force for good in the world – fostering human connection and prosperity – yet it is facing unprecedented challenges.

After years of pandemic lockdowns and travel restrictions, many Canadians returned to the skies in the Summer of 2022 to face delays, cancellations, insufferably long lines, and lost baggage. Lacking a sustainable workforce, the sector struggled to meet the surge in demand.

Aviation has also become a high-profile target for climate activism, with the flight shaming movement gaining momentum. Just weeks ago, hundreds of environmental activists made international headlines by blocking private jet operations at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport.

Aviation is facing three simultaneous crises – crew shortages, increasing environmental emissions, and the integration of rapidly-evolving technologies. These challenges align with social, environmental, and economic sustainability and are key pillars to consider in a national aerospace strategy. 

COVID forced the aviation sector to hit restart. The collective hardship faced by air operators and aviation professionals created an opportunity to challenge the status quo, to reimagine and reshape the industry.

The question remains – how can aviation achieve a sustainable future?

Aviation is a difficult sector to decarbonize. This Fall, international organizations #ICAO and #IATA harmonized their commitments to net-zero aviation emissions by 2050.

The Government of Canada also made a binding commitment to net-zero by 2050 published in Canada’s Aviation Action Plan. The plan outlines several measures including green aerospace technologies (electric, hybrid, and hydrogen propulsion); optimization of air traffic management and aircraft operations; sustainable aviation fuels (SAF goal: 10% by 2030); and out-of-sector reductions, also known as “offsets.” 

Similarly, IATA projects the 2050 net-zero goal to be realized through SAF (65%), offsetting / carbon capture (19%), new technologies (13%), and improved infrastructure / operations (3%).

These measures will be phased in. For example, in 2025 ICAO projects abating 381 megatonnes (Mt) through 97% offsets, 2% SAF, and 1% improvements above business as usual.

Reducing the reliance on offsets will take time. Most of the green technologies and practices that are cornerstones of the net-zero by 2050 plan are still in-development. For example, it is projected to take 10-20 years before airlines operate aircraft with electric or hydrogen propulsion (today’s battery technology is only capable of supporting very-light aircraft on short-duration trips).

Until green technologies mature, we are heavily reliant on offsets, where quality matters. Low-quality offsets may not actually reduce emissions. While internationally recognized offsetting standards (Gold Standard) and public registries (Verra) exist, offsets face criticism for their lack of transparency. The risk is trading a known amount of emissions created from air operations with an unknown amount of emission reduction from low-quality offsets.

Long-term efforts must remain focused on decreasing emissions at the source.

To advance new technologies from the research lab to the flight line, Canada must foster cross-sector collaborations that build on the relative strengths of our government, academic, and industry organizations. 

As a case study, the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA) recently purchased an e-plane as a research tool (a Pipistrel Velis Electro, the first electric plane certified by EASA). Its operational carbon credentials are strong, low-carbon electricity enables a 98% reduction in emissions compared to conventional training aircraft.

Small electric planes represent an entry point for integrating new electric propulsion technology into operations, making low-carbon flight possible over short distances. However, the e-plane must be validated in Canadian conditions to explore battery performance in cold weather, pilot training, safety standards, and other certification questions. Through strategic partnerships, WISA is working with the Waterloo Wellington Flight Centre and Transport Canada to collaboratively answer these and other essential questions. With Canada’s national commitment to net-zero aviation emissions by 2050, the long service lifespans of aircraft mean that today’s decisions impact achieving this goal.

A sustainable future for aviation will require us to tackle complex challenges that transcend disciplines and sectors. Innovative solutions will require us to mobilize strategic partnerships – uniting aviation operational professionals and policy makers with academic laboratories – to advance green technologies. Together, we can support the aviation sector in achieving a sustainable future, by aligning innovation with impact.

*This article was originally published in the Hill Times, November 28, 2022, written by Dr. Suzanne Kearns & Dr. Paul Parker from the University of Waterloo and the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Aeronautics (WISA).

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