airbus plane

Airbus to keep burning traditional jet fuel until at least 2050

Image credit: DT

Airbus has advised EU officials that most aeroplanes will continue to rely on conventional jet engines until at least 2050 in a briefing released ahead of its report on low-emissions aviation, Reuters has reported.

The aviation industry, which is associated with a little over two per cent of global carbon emissions, is under twin pressures to reduce emissions in line with climate goals while recovering from the heavy impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Electric, hydrogen and hybrid aircraft have been proposed as low or zero-carbon alternatives to aircraft powered by jet engines.

In February this year, Europe’s aviation sector published a study describing how it could cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050 through technological advances and expansion of sustainable fuel use. The EU is aiming to cut overall greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero by 2050.

Airbus announced last September that it hopes to develop zero-emission aircraft which could enter service by 2035. The company presented three different concepts, all relying on hydrogen as the primary power source. Airbus believes that hydrogen holds most promise as a clean aviation fuel, given that battery-powered planes are at present only able to complete very short flights.

Airbus has not, however, committed in public to replacing the medium-haul A320 (which is due to be replaced in the 2030s) with a hydrogen-powered model. The A320 line is the world’s best-selling aircraft, having recently edged ahead of the Boeing 737, with an A320 aircraft taking off or landing somewhere in the world approximately every 1.6 seconds.

Its recent briefing to EU officials, as reported by Reuters, would appear to firmly rule this out.

“Zero-emission hydrogen aircraft will be primarily focused on regional and shorter-range aircraft from 2035, which means that current and future iterations of highly efficient gas turbines will still be required as we move towards 2050, especially for long-haul operations,” Airbus told officials in the office of European Commissioner Frans Timmermans, who is responsible for EU climate policy.

As an interim step, Airbus said that it will start test-flying an A320 with 100 per cent “sustainable aviation fuel”, which is derived from renewable feedstocks rather than finite petroleum reserves. Airbus aims to power the A320’s medium-haul category by this renewable fuel first and “potentially some hydrogen” from 2050, while the smaller models (A220 and Embraer E2) would use batteries, hydrogen, and renewable fuel from 2040. Only the smallest regional 50-100 seat models will be ready for hydrogen fuel in the 2030s, Airbus said.

The company did not appear to share any details on how the zero-emission technology would be incorporated into its smaller, short-range aircraft. Airbus says that it is still in the conceptual stage of R&D and that its research will “seed disruptive technology likely to play a role in the next generation of airplanes”. Its American rival Boeing has recently ruled out using hydrogen fuel on a significant scale before 2050.

Slides from the presentation were acquired by climate lobbying watchdog InfluenceMap via an FOI request. The slides were part of a larger tranche of documents released by the group, which also revealed that aviation industry representatives have lobbied EU policymakers for their use of green stimulus funds.

The documents showed that Air France-KLM urged the EU to use the green funds to support aircraft sales, arguing that taxpayer-funded incentives on current plane models could help cut emissions by retiring older and less fuel-efficient airliners.

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