Shaping the future of aviation

Guillaume Faury
Guillaume Faury
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Aviation has changed the world for the better. As the world is now coming together to change and decarbonise aviation, the Middle East can play a leading role in this transformation. But time is short. That’s my message to global and regional leaders at the World Governments Summit in the UAE this week.

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This region shows the power of aviation. People from across the world flock to the UAE because of its status as a commercial powerhouse and the global melting pot of the 21st century. Aviation is an important part of this success story. The Middle East is home to some of the world’s best airlines, airports and aviation professionals. They have fuelled growth, trade and employment across the region, helping to diversify its economy.

Amid geopolitical tensions and the climate crisis, I’m also proud of how aviation brings leaders together from around the globe, such as at this summit.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the future of aviation was called into question. Since borders reopened, however, passenger numbers have rebounded more strongly than expected. At the beginning of 2024, people want and need to fly as much as ever. The Middle East is still the nexus of global air travel.

All this raises the urgency of decarbonising our sector. It’s the only way to ensure that aviation’s success today does not come at the expense of future generations. It’s also necessary to ensure our children and grandchildren will be able to benefit from the transformative power of flight. A world without it would be a less open and prosperous world.

Even five years ago, aviation was labelled simply as “difficult to decarbonise.” That perception has changed fast. The global aviation industry is now united by a clear, credible path to net-zero emissions by 2050.

What’s the way ahead? The newest aircraft curb emissions by up to 25 percent compared with the previous generation. The region’s airlines have been replacing older planes with these new aircraft in their hundreds. Aerospace engineers are already working on the new aircraft, lightweight materials and engines that will provide another radical step forward in fuel efficiency in the 2030s.

Fuel landscape

The fuels landscape is also shifting. Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF), can reduce emissions by an average of 80 percent across the lifecycle from production to use.
In fact, the majority of the emissions reductions needed to reach net-zero in 2050 are expected to come from these fuels. Today, they can power Airbus aircraft as part of a 50 percent blend with kerosene. By 2030, our aircraft should be capable of flying on 100 percent SAF.

These fuels are produced from waste and from biomass which doesn’t compete with food crops.

Over the longer term, low-carbon synthetic aviation fuels will be made from green hydrogen, produced using electrolysers powered by low-emissions electricity, combined with CO2 removed from the atmosphere using direct air carbon capture technology. The Middle East therefore has the opportunity to develop a thriving SAF production industry thanks to its abundant solar power resources.

Today SAFs comprise less than 1 percent of the fuel mix. To be on-track for net-zero in 2050, the industry needs to raise that figure to 10 percent by 2030. Momentum is building with many leading airlines pledging to use SAF in their operations. At Airbus, SAF represented more than 10 percent of the fuel we used in our own flight operations last year, for example when transporting aircraft sections between our factories around the world. Our target for 2024 is 15 percent. All this is stimulating more production. Policymakers are also stepping up. In November, the worldwide aviation sector agreed a global policy framework to support these fuels at a vital meeting in Dubai.

Over the longer term, hydrogen-powered aircraft will transform aviation as the low-emissions fuel of the future. The first hydrogen-powered airliner is under development at Airbus and is expected to start flying customers from 2035 onwards. This will rank as one of the most exciting breakthroughs in aviation history.

Recent developments show this project is no distant pipedream. One concept we’re studying for the airliner uses hydrogen fuel cells and a propeller propulsion system which would generate almost zero emissions. A few weeks ago, hydrogen fuel cells successfully powered, for the first time, the electrical propulsion system that will drive the propellers of our demonstrator aircraft.
This is the aircraft we will use to test, on the ground and from 2026 in the air, the viability of our designs and technologies.

In the 2020s, the aviation sector has embarked on an era of far-reaching innovation. What more is needed? Aviation’s decarbonisation depends on a massive expansion in the world’s renewable energy sources. On current plans, global SAF production in 2030 will be around half of what will be required to stay on-course for net-zero by 2050. From a standing start, hydrogen from low-carbon sources needs to be scaled up and a distribution network put in place.

Global clean energy investment has accelerated over the past two years. The rise of solar power has exceeded even optimistic predictions. And the United States’ Inflation Reduction Act has triggered a surge in green investment. The overall pace of change, however, remains too slow for the world to meet its climate commitments.

November’s COP28 meeting in Dubai shows the way ahead, for example the agreement to triple renewable energy capacity by 2030. These ambitions need to be backed by concrete investment and action. That’s why the UAE’s leadership in pledging $30 billion into the new climate fund, ALTERRA, matters. The fund aims to mobilise $250 billion globally by 2030 with a focus on emerging economies.

Whenever I visit this dynamic region, I am reminded how aviation can change the world for the better. The world, including the Middle East, is now working together to change aviation. The time to accelerate is upon us.

Read more:

Abu Dhabi’s clean energy firm Masdar to work with Airbus to develop clean fuel

Microsoft backed sustainable aviation fuel startup fires up new CO2-converter

Middle East clean energy sources ‘still negligible,’ but expanding: IRENA chief

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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