Key “Mega-Trends” Driving the Future of Sustainable Aviation

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Sustainable aviation. Two words that have been the driving force behind the research, development, and innovation across the aviation industry for the better part of a decade. With significant tailwinds pushing consumers towards more green airlines, and with national and international governments implementing new sustainability requirements for businesses in the aviation industry, it‘s understandable why aviation companies are investing heavily in new, greener technologies and working to prioritize sustainability in their operations.

But a greener, more sustainable aviation industry isn’t some far-off pipe dream.

According to LeAnn Ridgeway, the Chief Sustainability Officer at Collins Aerospace, aviation is already focused on creating an eco-conscious future.

The past two years have been turbulent for the aviation industry, to put it mildly. The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted travel plans around the world and forced every stakeholder in the aviation industry – from airports to aircraft manufacturers – to prioritize new requirements, including sanitation. Despite the industry’s focus on COVID requirements, Ridgeway saw a renewed environmental conscience among her company and others in the aviation industry. 

“We are seeing a new focus on renewable sources of fuels, and the abundance of [new alternative fuels] is staggering…“Renewables will be a large piece of the puzzle that will enable manufacturers to reduce their carbon footprints.” – LeAnn Ridgeway

“Looking back to 2021, 2020, we saw aviation start to get some traction around sustainability,” Ridgeway told Connected Aviation Today. “We saw a lot of companies come out and make commitments in support of ‘Net Zero 2050’ and other carbon neutral pledges, and that’s just part of a larger trend that we’ve seen in our sector.”

Ridgeway added that recent international events, particularly the environmental summit in Glasgow, Scotland, really punctuated a global push for more sustainable aviation. “[International summits] are instrumental in giving everyone a boost and some extra momentum to get on board,” Ridgeway said. What matters now, however, is what happens next.

“This is where innovation really starts to be important,” Ridgeway noted, “Over the last few years, we’ve made immense progress on introducing new solutions and processes that can help make these carbon-neutral goals in civil aviation a reality.”

Ridgeway explained that four large trends showcase the work being done to embrace sustainable aviation across the industry. They include:

Advancements in Renewable Energy
The aviation industry, by its nature, utilizes large amounts of energy to operate. The factories and manufacturing facilities that create aircraft need the energy to operate. And aircraft themselves require fuel to fly. This has created a large drive by the aviation industry to utilize renewable energy sources as a way to decrease its carbon footprint. 

According to Ridgeway, “We are seeing a new focus on renewable sources of fuels, and the abundance of [new alternative fuels] is staggering,” she said. “When renewables first became available, they were quite expensive, which made it difficult for aviation companies to justify using them.” 

However, recent years have brought significant advances to the field of renewables, so much so that Ridgeway predicts that, “Renewables will be a large piece of the puzzle that will enable manufacturers to reduce their carbon footprints.” 

“We are in a perfect storm, where each of these four metrics is coming together and providing the necessary momentum to achieve sustainable aviation goals, we just all need to get to work to make it happen.” – LeAnn Ridgeway

The Circular Economy
What, exactly, is the circular economy? A circular economy is one in which manufacturers design and build products that are intended to be reusable. Ridgeway explains that today’s aircraft manufacturers are embracing the circular economy by, “being aware of all the materials that are being put into a product and increasing the use of materials that are fully recyclable when the product reaches the end of its life.”  A great example of the aviation industry’s embrace of reusable materials is the use of thermoplastics by Collins Aerospace, which Ridgeway noted can “be melted down, reshaped and revitalized, and then used again and put back into the marketplace.” 

As the industry continues to transition towards a circular economy, Ridgeway emphasizes that aviation will continue to focus on innovating new methods and materials, but instead of prioritizing the cheapest of each, they will look for the most sustainable options. “We’ll see more thought put into important questions, like ‘where does this part go at the end of its lifecycle?’ ‘Does this go into a landfill?’ ‘Can I make this recyclable?’ This will translate into a push for a more sustainable aviation supply chain as well,” Ridgeway said.

ESG: The Business Side
Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) can best be thought of as the evolution of corporate social responsibility. Specifically, ESG criteria help companies determine the areas where they have the greatest opportunity to make a positive impact and set goals to do so, while also creating benchmarks to hold them accountable.

The aerospace industry is seeing the potential benefits of sustainable aviation and prioritizing those long-term societal and environmental benefits.

“We’re seeing this not only in the choices that the industry is making but in what products we’re investing in, in the mergers and acquisitions that are happening,” Ridgway said. “Looking at Collins, we announced two mergers last year, one with FlightAware and another with Dutch Thermoplastics. Both were strategic decisions that benefit our business that also help us advance our systems and processes around sustainability.”

This focus demonstrates the importance of business buy-in for sustainable aviation as Ridgeway notes that, “…some of the technology we need to be truly carbon neutral in 28 years is not yet mature.” Having a corporate ecosystem that is dedicated to filling gaps and bolstering innovation will be a critical part of the process that makes that technology a reality.

“With the international nature of aviation, it’s hard for the industry to really pick and choose which measures of sustainability we will meet. In the end, we need to find the common metrics and be prepared to meet those.” – LeAnn Ridgeway

ESG: The Government Side
Finally, Ridgeway notes that there has been an increasing trend among governments that will provide additional incentives for sustainable aviation. “It’s happening over in Europe right now, and the U.S. isn’t far behind, but we’re seeing more and more legislation that will require transparency from companies about their plans and efforts to meet mandated sustainability requirements,” Ridgeway said. 

“With the international nature of aviation, it’s hard for the industry to really pick and choose which measures of sustainability we will meet. In the end, we need to find the common metrics and be prepared to meet those,” Ridgeway said. 

Together, these four trends are converging to drive a new “Green Revolution” in the aviation industry. And, with the increased innovation and investment from aviation companies into new fuels, eco-friendly materials, and greener operations, there should be no reason why the industry can’t meet its carbon emissions goals in the future.

“We are in a perfect storm, where each of these four metrics is coming together and providing the necessary momentum to achieve sustainable aviation goals, we just all need to get to work to make it happen.”

To learn more about how Collins Aerospace is working to achieve its sustainable aviation goals, click here.

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