Decarbonization, The Best Route Forward?

In today’s world, decarbonization is a term we have become all too familiar with. We know we are heading toward a climate emergency unless we do something about it, and soon.  

According to the United Nations, 2010-2019 was the warmest decade on record. This is due to greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2 and methane, which act like a blanket wrapped around the earth, trapping the sun’s heat and raising temperatures. If we do nothing and merely continue along our current path, global temperatures could increase by as much as 4.4°C by the end of the century. However, if we make changes to limit global temperature rise to no more than 1.5°C it would help us avoid the worst climate impacts and maintain a livable climate. 

As such, decarbonization has become a global imperative. Almost all countries ratified the 2015 Paris Agreement, a legally binding international treaty from the UN that aims to limit global warming preferably to 1.5°C but significantly below 2°C. These countries have set their own reduction targets with many committing to becoming carbon neutral by 2050.  

 

All onboard for decarbonization 

These ambitious targets cannot be reached without the decarbonization of industry. For instance, the aerospace industry often comes under attack for its reliance on aviation fuel, which has a high carbon footprint. This reliance on fuel started with Sir Frank Whittle’s invention of the jet engine, which took its first flight in 1941.  

This breakthrough invention paved the way for aircraft to reach higher speeds and altitudes. Over the following decades, the goal in aerospace, particularly for domestic flight, has been to fly faster and for longer, with more passengers onboard. This remains a goal, but it must now be achieved with no or drastically reduced carbon emissions. 

The good news is that there are many disruptive innovations being built to do just that. In fact, many believe we are on the verge of the next biggest shift in aviation technology since Sir Frank’s jet engine. New propulsion concepts, be they electric, hybrid or hydrogen, are set to change the face of aviation. New designs already in development include transonic truss-braced wings. These extra-long wings, which are stabilized by diagonal struts, allow for more fuel-efficient aircraft as they cause less drag than conventionally designed wings. 

However, the bad news is that there is no silver bullet. There is no single technology or solution today that alone will enable the industry to achieve its required decarbonization targets. These technologies cannot be considered in isolation as any new technology will have an impact on other products and systems. This requires the adoption of systems thinking where the whole ecosystem is being considered as part of the approach to achieving decarbonization. For instance, aircraft with new propulsion systems may look very different to conventional aircraft and as such the infrastructure at airports will need to change to accommodate these new designs into gates and stands. 

 

The path towards net zero 

Within the industry, a number of decarbonization roadmaps have been proposed all of which feature four primary levers that need to be considered as part of the ecosystem:  

  • Operational and infrastructure improvements 
  • Aircraft technology development (e.g. electric and hydrogen)  
  • Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) 
  • Market-based measures (e.g. offsetting) 

 

While many of the roadmaps agree on these four levers, they differ in their approaches. On the one end there are the ‘art of probable’ roadmaps, which lay out realistic routes to help reduce aviation emissions. The issue is that if following a realistic route, although CO2 emissions will flatten, which is a significant achievement in itself, it won’t reduce emissions enough to achieve global targets by 2050.  

On the other end, the ‘art of the possible’ roadmaps layout far more radical routes that will arrive at nearly net zero by 2050. These roadmaps require a dramatic ramping up of at least one decarbonization lever.  

 

Digitalization is the accelerator 

The road ahead will not be easy but with the clock ticking, there is no time to lose. The question is no longer ‘if’ we achieve these targets or even ‘when’, it’s ‘how’ we achieve them. The ‘how’ is through digitalization. 

Digital tools are a key enabler and, regardless of which roadmap is followed and which levers are being focused on, digitalization will help accelerate the race towards net zero. Although 80% of a product’s environmental impact over its life cycle is determined during the design phase [link to whitepaper with this stat], digital tools have a significant role to play beyond just design and engineering.  

Indeed, a digital solution such as Dassault Systèmes’ 3DEXPERIENCE platform provides a collaborative virtual environment that enables various stakeholders to participate in the full lifecycle of a product or system. This virtual twin experience, or digital representation of the real world, provides a single source of truth from the early design stage of the lifecycle all the way through to testing, validation, manufacturing, operations, sustainment and end-of-life.  

The aerospace industry, as with all industries, has a huge challenge on its hands. Quite simply, our planet and all creatures living on it are at risk unless there is a commitment from all of us to do something about it now if we haven’t already.  

The aerospace industry has many exciting technologies and concepts already waiting in the wings to help decarbonize aerospace. Digitalization is the accelerator and key enabler for the industry as it takes flight towards this sustainable future. 

 

If you are looking to drive your net-zero policy or begin to map out your decarbonization roadmap, get in touch with our team today.