Aviation may seem like an unlikely leader on the journey to a more sustainable future, but the industry was built on a belief that anything is possible. With more organizations pledging to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, the sector has made significant strides in finding novel ways to reduce its environmental impact. And yet, the challenge facing aviation today is a steep one. The number of global air passengers is projected to nearly double over the next 20 years, leading to more fuel consumption and more carbon emissions.1
Indeed, it won’t be long before the sector sees emissions on a new scale. While the aviation industry carbon emissions are about 2% of the current annual global carbon budget, experts forecast aviation to consume between 12-27% of the remaining carbon budget through 2050 to limit global temperature rise below 1.5C above pre-industrial levels.2
Given the shorter runway to achieve net-zero by 2050, the aviation industry will need to tackle carbon emissions on multiple fronts if it wants to reach its ambitious goal. It will require a combination of industry and government initiatives, ecosystem plays, changes to the energy supply and new technologies. Also, it will require simultaneously addressing the decarbonization of both the energy supply and onboard technologies.
Timing is everything
So, what technologies hold the most promise? Decarbonizing the energy supply may take the form of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), hydrogen or electricity stored in batteries. As for onboard technologies, our Horizon 2050 report used a holistic assessment methodology—which included extensive industry, academic and government stakeholder input and analysis—to identify key innovations.
Some technologies like composite structures and flight deck optimization software are already on their way to being adopted at scale. However, several technologies will need broader support in the mid and long term. Here’s how they break down regarding time frames:
By defining specific time frames, we developed a focused list of 11 technologies that could be mobilized over the mid-term and long-term horizons. Direct public funding, public-private partnerships and industry incentives will be instrumental in advancing the industry on its journey toward net-zero emissions by 2050. Here’s a closer look at what’s in store.
2030-2040: Reimagining smaller planes
In the near future, the industry anticipates several innovative advancements that will completely reimagine smaller planes. Think regional and narrow-body aircraft. While some of these technologies will also be applicable for more commercial wide-body aircraft, bringing them into the fray will require additional time and investment to ensure they’ve properly matured and can be scaled.
Technologies like high-pressure ratio core engines and advanced composites have been deemed the most feasible in the mid-term time frame due to higher maturity status. Hybrid-electric was observed to be less feasible due to its technical complexity and advancements required for high-energy-density batteries.
These technologies won’t reduce carbon emissions drastically—within the range of 1%-20%—due to the smaller scale of the regional aircraft segment. This segment has a high number of small aircrafts that represent a smaller percentage of the addressable market. However, they can make an impact much sooner.
2040 and beyond: Time to accelerate
Looking to 2040 and beyond, we expect to see more novel solutions come enter the market.
Technologies like transonic truss-braced wings (i.e., novel wing design), open rotor engines (i.e., more efficient engine designs) and fuel cells for onboard power have the greatest feasibility in this longer-term time horizon. Hydrogen propulsion has the lowest feasibility due to the technical complexity and infrastructure investments to enable it.
Technologies in this segment show significant potential to reduce emissions—to the tune of 1%-46%. However, due to their longer deployment runways, it will be difficult for aircraft programs to incorporate and field them sooner. Companies should highly consider accelerating the development of these longer-term technologies given the large emissions impact they promise. Since wide-body aircrafts drive 45% of aircraft emissions, scaling these technologies further could significantly decrease overall aircraft emissions, but in a post-2050 time frame.
An ecosystem of sustainability
The potential for new, exciting technologies in the mid-term and long-term is massive. With the appropriate level of support from private and public sector, they could be brought to market in the anticipated time horizons and provide promising emission impact reductions by 2050.
Private and public sector need to be aligned, however, for these technologies to succeed. Both can play a crucial role in advancing them by doing three things:
It can be difficult to imagine the aviation industry at the forefront of carbon reduction. But if we’ve learned anything from the Wright brothers, Amelia Earhart or the countless other innovators who have challenged expectations, it’s that the sky is the limit.
To learn more about our methodology, download the report Horizon 2050- A flight plan for the future of sustainable aviation.