A low-carbon future can move net-zero aviation beyond a flight of fantasy

As international air travel rebounds after COVID-19 restrictions, greenhouse gas emissions from aviation are expected to rise dramatically – and with it, scrutiny of the industry’s environmental credentials.

Aviation emissions have almost doubled since 2000 and in 2018 reached one billion tonnes. Climate Action Tracker rates the industry’s climate performance as critically insufficient.

As the climate change threat rapidly worsens, can aviation make the transition to a low-carbon future – and perhaps even reach net-zero emissions? The significant technological and energy disruption on the horizon for the industry suggests such a future is possible.

But significant challenges remain. Achieving a net-zero aviation sector will require a huge collaborative effort from industry and government – and consumers can also play their part.

Build back better

The aviation sector’s progress in cutting emissions has been disappointing to date. For example, in February last year, research on the world’s largest 58 airlines found even the best-performing ones were not doing anywhere near enough to cut emissions.

Most recently, at the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, the industry merely reasserted a commitment to a plan known as the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation.

The scheme relies on carbon offsetting, which essentially pays another actor to reduce emissions on its behalf at the lowest cost, and doesn’t lead to absolute emissions reduction in aviation. The scheme also encourages alternative cleaner fuels, but the level of emissions reduction between fuels varies considerably.

Governments have generally failed to provide strong leadership to help the aviation sector to reduce emissions. This in part is because pollution from international aviation is not counted in the emissions ledger of any country, leaving little incentive for governments to act. Aviation is also a complex policy space to navigate, involving multiple actors around the world. However, COVID-19 has significantly jolted the aviation and travel sector, presenting an opportunity to build back better – and differently.

Griffith University recently held a webinar series on decarbonizing aviation, involving industry, academic, and government experts. The sessions explored the most promising policy and practical developments for net-zero aviation, as well as the most significant hurdles.