February 6, 2020 Last updated March 9th, 2020 1,034 Reads share

Sustainable Aviation In 2020 and Beyond

Image Credit: DepositPhotos

“Some say that the answer to climate change is to stop or heavily reduce flying. That would have grave consequences for people, jobs, and economies the world over. It would be a step backward to an isolated society that is smaller, poorer and constrained.

“I say, let’s work together to make flying sustainable. CO2 is the problem. We can and are doing something meaningful to reduce it.”

Alexandre de Juniac, Director General and CEO, International Air Transport Association


That climate change is real and also poses a grave danger to our environment is no longer a matter of debate. Across the board, different industries are revisiting their harmful approaches and practices to make them more environment-friendly, the aviation industry inclusive. 

Aviation is almost synonymous with carbon emissions despite accounting for ‘only’ 2.5% of global carbon emissions. The numbers are exploding and that has recently sparked a lot of ‘flight shaming’, with many people deciding that boycotting airlines altogether until they become considerably sustainable is the way to go. Apart from the fact that this would have serious negative impacts as the DG of IATA had said as quoted about, it is not a workable idea. Airplanes are not going to disappear because we say they should. We either continue to destroy the environment via air travel or find sustainable alternatives to how things have been.

To surmount this challenge, the IATA came up with a strategy made up of the following four ‘pillars’:

  • Improved technology, including the deployment of sustainable low-carbon fuels
  • More efficient aircraft operations
  • Infrastructure improvements, including modernized air traffic management systems
  • A single global market-based measure, to fill the remaining emissions gap

This article examines what work has been going on in th0se four directions, alongside opportunities for future improvements.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)

This has perhaps been the most popular of all solutions to the aviation industry’s air pollution problems. As against petroleum-based fuels, SAF is gotten from recycled and other renewable sources. That reduces carbon emissions by about 80%. Apart from the fact that it is a green alternative to fossil fuels, it is also more efficient in its higher energy density. Commercial usage of SAF in aircraft began in 2011, but since then, the overall reception has been minimal. One reason for this is the high cost of SAF, compared to regular jet fuels. 

However, since electric and hybrid alternatives for powering aircraft are not workable, SAF remains the best we have. There is still a lot of optimism since costs would definitely reduce as the technology for producing SAFs become more efficient. Besides, aircraft do not need any new infrastructure to use SAF since we can blend it with conventional jet fuel to reduce an airline’s carbon footprint. 

More Efficient Aircraft Operations

There is a host of innovative ways airlines try to cut down on carbon emissions and make the earth safer for all. Here are some airlines and what they do to contribute to global sustainability efforts:


  • Weight Reduction: the heavier a plane is, the more fuel it requires to fly. This rationale is why airlines keep trying to cut unnecessary weight at all costs, with methods that may even sound crazy. Air France-KLM, which tops the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for airlines, achieves this by using lighter weight equipment in its aircraft.
  • Waste Reduction and Recycling: Japanese airline, All Nippon Airways topped the DJSI in 2018. During that year, amidst other achievements, it reduced its overall waste by 8.5%. It also recycles magazines used in-flight and other recyclable items.
  • Beyond Aircraft: it is easy to focus on aircraft alone while ignoring other non-sustainable practices in other areas. China Airlines avoids this by building an overall culture of environmental protection. This it does by substituting conventional equipment for energy-saving alternatives where possible, and also building green offices, among others.

Infrastructure Improvements

Sustainability is not a responsibility for airlines alone, but for airports too. Airports have a very high carbon footprint already, and expansion would make it even higher. To turn around the status quo, airport infrastructure needs to be more sustainable and cost-efficient. This would begin with designing and constructing sustainable buildings and using more environment-friendly equipment and facilities. 

For instance, smarter solutions in air traffic management via AI and digitization, among others, can help improve sustainability in aviation. Other ingenious solutions being used by the world’s most environmentally friendly airports include: 

  • Setting stringent pollution standards.
  • Constructing with recycled materials.
  • Alternative electricity generation systems, such as solar energy.
  • Energy-saving alternatives for equipment and lighting systems.
  • Repurposing wastewater for other uses.
  • Environmentally friendly asphalt for paving runways.

Global Market-Based Measures for CO2 Emissions

Beyond the changing public perception about environmental issues, there have arisen needs for global standards to guard against indiscriminate pollution. There have also been commendable efforts by relevant bodies. For one, the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organisation) adopted the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) in 2016. CORSIA is a way of monitoring carbon emissions by airline operators. By requiring companies to “compensate for their emissions by financing a reduction in emissions elsewhere,” they can achieve sustainability more conveniently.

Also, the ICAO’s carbon emission standards for aircraft production takes effect this year, having been adopted in 2017. The aim is to certify new aircraft based on their (potential) carbon emissions according to their size and weight. The rules are simple: go green or go home. All these standards, alongside other aviation standards such as the DO-254 and DO-178C in avionics,) ensure better efficiency in aviation.

Advancements in avionics design can steadily improve aviation efficiency. Avionics developers can improve knowledge in avionics design via DO-178C training for avionics software, and DO-254 training for avionics hardware


It is apparent that significant efforts have been underway to ensure that the aviation industry is more sustainable. The industry aims at a 50% reduction in the carbon emission numbers of 2005 by the year 2050. This year, 2020, being the beginning of a new decade is a turning point and is poised to spearhead further improvements in global attempts at creating a cleaner environment. Whether aviation can be completely green is a different matter. That would not happen overnight; what matters is that carbon emissions be reducing.

large airliner – DepositPhotos

Michael Usiagwu

Michael Usiagwu

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