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Raising ambition in net zero flight: A briefing from COP28

Raising ambition in net zero flight: A briefing from COP28

"I knew even before I arrived, that COP28 would be critical in helping to raise ambition for zero emission aviation." 

In this age of disruption, we not only need new models, but we need new mindsets if we are to raise our ambitions and ensure, in the words of The King, that this is 'a turning point towards genuine transformational action'.

Professor Rob Miller, Chair in Aerothermal Technology and Whittle Lab Director

Written by Professor Rob Miller, Director, Whittle Lab and Lead, Aviation Impact Accelerator, at COP28

I knew even before I arrived, that COP28 would be critical in helping to raise ambition for zero emission aviation. 

Then at the opening reception King Charles asked me about progress on a sustainable aviation initiative he launched at Cambridge's Whittle Laboratory almost immediately after his coronation.  

I had been invited by The King’s Sustainable Markets Initiative to the Business and Philanthropy Climate Forum, an event hosted by the COP28 Presidency on the first two days of COP with the aim of bringing together heads of state and CEOs to drive meaningful climate and nature action.  

I’d been asked to co-chair the aviation round table with the Air Transport Action Group (ATAG).

Aviation is a major contributor to climate change,,around 2-3% of global CO2 emissions, and 6% once the non-CO2 climate impacts are included.  

Rapid action is needed by industry and governments if we are to set a pathway to achieve zero emission aviation by 2050, and I knew this forum, which included industry leaders like Rolls-Royce, regulatory bodies like the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and sustainable finance executives from investment institutions like Bank of America was a key moment to raise ambition. 

Cambridge had been leading a team which was developing the 2030 Sustainable Aviation Goals, a set of actions which if implemented by 2030 would significantly cut the time required to achieve zero emission aviation.

This forum offered a unique opportunity to persuade global leaders that the Goals must be implemented.  

We had been working extremely hard since King Charles visited the Whittle Laboratory seven months earlier, as his first event post-coronation to convene a group of aviation industry CEOs, alongside senior Government representatives, to help work on the Goals.  

The Goals had originated from a workshop one month earlier in Boston, co-hosted by Cambridge University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in partnership with senior government policy experts from the U.S., UK and EU. 

The workshop provided the group with a set of advanced modelling tools, developed by the Aviation Impact Accelerator team, a sort of ‘Minority Report’ style tool, which provided policy makers with a special ability to explore how policy, technology and system integration could be used to accelerate change. 

Each of the four goals is specifically targeted to raise ambition in a particular area of aviation.  

The first 2030 Goal is designed to ensure that Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) are delivered in a truly sustainable way.  

Last week Virgin flew the world’s first 100% SAF transatlantic flight. However, the quantities of feedstocks, biomass and hydrogen, required to scale SAF are immense and if not properly regulated the aviation industry will steal scarce resources from other sectors resulting in their emissions rising. The Goal is to put in place the global policies by 2030, required to minimise the wider impact of SAFs on climate and nature.  

The second 2030 Goal is designed to drive a new business model in the aviation sector.  

The current business model of aviation has resulted in the fuel burnt per passenger per km dropping by around 1% per year. By changing either incentives and/or regulation the business model can be changed to accelerate this effect. The Goal is to put in place incentives by 2030 which drive demand and fleet management and operations which will deliver a 40% reduction in fuel burn per passenger km by 2040.  

The third 2030 Goal is designed to accelerate the demonstration of the key technologies required to develop a long-haul hydrogen aircraft.  

The low weight of hydrogen fuel, even once the weight of the tanks is included, make hydrogen advantageous for long haul flight and the introduction of hydrogen would remove CO2 emissions from flight.  

Demonstrating the underlying technologies would act to dramatically cut the time to deliver such an aircraft. The Goal is to setup a ‘moonshot’ style programme which would demonstrate several key underlying technologies and infrastructure by 2030. 

The final 2030 Goal would be to remove the clouds formed by aviation.  

Around one in 30 flights produces a persistent contrail, a region of cloud which can trap in heat to the Earth, increasing the climate impact of aviation. This non-CO2 emissions climate impact is estimated to be around the same size as the CO2 emissions impact of aviation, though the scientific uncertainty of the magnitude of this effect is large.  

However, this effect can be avoided if the aircraft changes altitude in regions of the atmosphere where there is a potential to form clouds. The Goal is to trial and then deploy a contrail mitigation system which can start operation before 2030.   

At the opening reception, The King urged us to continue to raise our ambitions in driving change in the aviation sector.  

The following morning at the aviation roundtable I demonstrated the 2030 Sustainable Aviation Goals to the assembled CEOs and sector leaders, using the Aviation Impact Accelerator tool. It was clear that they immediately understood the opportunity and discussion quickly shifted to what actions where required by 2030.  

With the King’s words from his opening speech at COP, “I pray with all my heart that COP28 will be another critical turning point towards genuine transformational action”, it was clear that the assembled leaders in the aviation sector understood that now was the moment to raise ambitions.  

The Aviation Impact Accelerator, a group of more than 100 international experts led by the Whittle Laboratory and Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership, is laser-focused on developing the tools necessary to support decision-making and raised ambition in the aviation sector.  

By Professor Rob Miller (Director, Whittle Lab and Lead, Aviation Impact Accelerator)  

This news was originally published on the University of Cambridge website.

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