Sustainability Advances in the Aviation Industry

Global Aerospace Editorial Team, April 21, 2022
Giving Back, Innovation, Sustainability

Aviation is both a vital industry and one that has a significant impact on the environment. Concerned parties—from government regulators to aviation companies to private citizens—are increasingly pushing for advances in sustainability.

Distant aerial view of forest with small airplane flying over

To get an update on industry efforts toward more eco-friendly aviation operations, we interviewed Kennedy Ricci, president of 4Air. This company helps organizations that produce a carbon footprint from aviation mitigate their environmental impact.

1. Sustainability has been a discussion in the aviation industry for many years now. Have you seen things accelerate recently?

We saw the conversation around sustainability accelerate after COVID‐19 began as people stepped away from their normal routine and considered what could be. The points of emphasis coming out of the pandemic have been the idea of rebuilding better, a purposeful reflection on the aviation industry and a recognition of our opportunity to resume operations more sustainably.

This sustainability conversation has renewed interest across all aviation industry stakeholders—from trade organizations and airports to manufacturers, operators and corporate flight departments—in identifying and making progress on their appropriate contributions to long‐term decarbonization goals. This has translated into unprecedented goal-setting and actionable implementation of sustainability strategies.

2. What tools are there to help an aircraft operator assess their carbon footprint?

The simple piece of aviation carbon footprinting is that aside from ground‐based emissions, most of an operator’s emissions are directly attributable to the fuel they use. Estimating a carbon footprint is as simple as looking at an operator’s fuel usage and multiplying it by standard emissions factors. Operators can use tools such as the International Civil Aviation Organization’s (ICAO’s) Certified Emissions Reporting Tool (CERT) to estimate their footprint.

It becomes more complicated when operators look beyond carbon dioxide emissions and include the warming impact from non‐CO2 emissions such as nitrous oxides, water vapor and contrails. The aviation industry is still refining its understanding of the magnitude of these impacts and mitigation options. However, the non‐CO2 emissions are believed to constitute the majority of aviation’s climate footprint, and thus we can’t disregard their impact.

3. What can aircraft owners and operators do to lower their environmental footprint today?

The most significant opportunity for decarbonization today is starting to use Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) in aircraft. SAF is a drop‐in fuel—meaning no changes are needed to current fuel infrastructure, systems, aircraft or engines to use it—that meets the same standards as jet fuel but comes from recycled feedstocks such as industrial waste oils, used cooking oil or tallow. Today, on a blended basis, SAF can reduce an operation’s footprint by around 25%. Future feedstocks and production methods will enable even more sustainable SAF.

However, it is essential to demonstrate a market for SAF today, using the fuel when able (or committing to a certain percentage of SAF) and using a book and claim program. Book and claim provides a novel opportunity for one aircraft operator to use the physical fuel while another claims the benefit and pays for the difference in cost.

A robust book and claim tracking system to prevent double claiming of the same attribute helps stakeholders scale the fuel supply by better matching the supply and demand of SAF across geographies. Additionally, operators could purchase more fuel‐efficient aircraft, right‐size aircraft for their mission and provide education on operational opportunities to use more fuel‐efficient power settings and cruise altitudes.

4. How do you see the use of SAF evolving over the next five years, and will FBOs be equipped to provide SAF on a broad basis to meet demand?

The most notable change over the next five years will be the increased availability of SAF as new production comes online. We will also see new feedstocks enter the market, offering the opportunity for increased sustainability and higher blends of SAF. The main challenge will be that much of this fuel gets delivered to California due to state tax incentives. That means effective book and claim documentation systems will be needed to ensure a trustworthy process for matching out‐of‐state demand.

FBOs will also need to understand where their fuel comes from to provide appropriate documentation of the various sustainability benefits from different fuel feedstocks. Managing this paper trail will certainly present a challenge but by no means an insurmountable one. To help track this rollout of SAF and understand where it is available, 4AIR has launched an SAF map that shows locations with a verified and continuous supply of fuel.

5. What types of carbon offset mechanisms exist in the aviation industry today?

Verified carbon offsets come from projects like avoided deforestation, afforestation, renewable energy conversion and other strict methodologies that undergo multiple audits and verifications. For every metric ton of CO2 emissions, the purchase and retirement of one carbon offset is needed to counteract or compensate for the same emissions. This allows a company or individual to offset their own emissions by paying to reduce them elsewhere through a carbon offset.

Stakeholders can purchase carbon offsets through exchanges like the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA’s) Aviation Carbon Exchange or partners like 4AIR. We are also exploring opportunities to create carbon offsets within the aviation industry. Still, any offset project available today will come from a project developer (i.e., the entity that creates offsets) outside the industry.

6. What do you believe has contributed to the current increase in awareness in our industry? What inspired you to embark on setting up this business?

We saw the sustainability trend coming in aviation with the advent of emissions reporting regulations like the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) and the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS). However, the societal shift and refocus on the environment after COVID‐19 accelerated the interest in voluntary programs.

Ensuring transparency and comparability among different commitments is important. Consequently, 4AIR wanted to help develop a standardized framework that guided people to meet or, better yet, exceed industry decarbonization goals.

The industry has done a great job learning more about these initiatives, so now it is about turning these learnings into actionable goals. We believe business aviation can truly be a leader in aviation decarbonization by continuing to pioneer goals and taking the first steps today.

7. What tangible changes do you predict taking place in the next 10 years to help achieve a more carbon-neutral aerospace sector?

The next 10 years will be exciting for new sustainability efforts within aviation. We are going to see more efficient SAF, new technologies, a heightened call from customers and employees for more aggressive action and new alternative propulsion technologies entering the market.

This is true particularly in the short- to medium-range market. At the same time, 4AIR is working to increase access to sustainability programs for new aviation industry stakeholders while building even more impactful solutions beyond just carbon emissions.

The pressure on the sector is likely to continue growing, so preparing climate action strategies and supporting as many decarbonization technology opportunities as possible is going to be critical. The aviation industry would be well served to employ a multi‐faceted strategy that includes new technology, new infrastructure, better operations, sustainable fuels and carbon offsets/sequestration.

Continual Progress and Miles to Go

The aviation industry must continue to invest time, effort and capital to operate more sustainably. However, the progress made to date is encouraging, as are commitments from stakeholders throughout the industry and around the world to stay focused on the many initiatives planned and underway.