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The long, but steady, progress towards aerospace sustainability

Antonio Rodríguez-Laiz

Antonio Rodríguez-Laiz

AERTEC / Marketing & Communication

From the earliest human efforts to take flight, innovation has been a constant. If we think about it, the very fact of confronting the nature of flight, for which we were not designed, is already an exercise in innovation.

While in the early days, the challenges were geared towards breaking records such as speed, height, capacity or autonomy, over time the priorities changed. In fact, the values that companies used to put before each other in their competition for the marketplace were more often related to issues of an almost exclusively technical nature.

For many years, the aerospace sector has been firmly and consistently committed to ESG (environmental, social and governance) values, which are already bringing clear benefits to its environment.

Without abandoning that approach, aerospace companies today also look at other values beyond their own technological and technical capabilities. Now it’s a matter of advancing its environmental, social and governance policies.

In 2004, Kofi Annan, then secretary general of the United Nations, called on major financial institutions to partner with the UN to identify initiatives to integrate environmental, social and governance concerns into global capital markets and investment institutions. As a result of this request, the World Bank held the “Who Cares Wins” conference in 2005 to examine the role of social and governance indicators. They were first known as ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance) values.

What was initially aimed at companies in the financial sector evolved into a global trend for active brand valuation. Environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) is an assessment of a company’s collective awareness of social and environmental factors. This is being applied both in the internal context of companies and in the services, solutions or products they offer to their customers. In the aerospace sector as well.

Sustainability is a term that was originally used in the fight to save the planet, but today it has been transformed into an umbrella term for environmental, social and governance issues. Citizens, the media, user groups, regulators and governments are putting the spotlight on companies themselves and demanding clear action in this regard.

Since the beginning of this century, the aerospace sector has taken on an important role in ESG values in various areas. A clear example of this is the work carried out over the years to improve aircraft efficiency, optimising materials, managing processes more efficiently and globally reducing emissions, both as an industry and in terms of aircraft operation and, consequently, in air transport. There is still a long way to go, but the results are evident because one of the keys to this approach is consistency in the will to improve.

In the aerospace sector, there are a number of challenges that will be key in the coming years, whatever the company’s specific field of performance (manufacturer, supply chain, operator, airline management, airports, etc.). The commitment of aerospace companies is very broad in terms of ESG values.

The environmental factor (E), which relates to decision-making on the basis of how business activities affect the environment, is often the most evident from the outside. For years, we have seen the persistent progress towards an industry that is more respectful of the environment, both in the materials used, the impact of the processes or the waste generated. Digitalisation is also, in its broadest sense, a concept that is contributing a lot in this respect.

The social factor (S) is the benchmark for the impact on the community of the activities carried out by the company, for example, in terms of diversity, human rights or health aspects. This is an aspect of the company’s intimacy and its relationship with people, and the aerospace sector is following the same trend as companies as a whole. However, the overall benefit to society of air transport (both for people and goods) is noteworthy. Today, the global economy, business, leisure, medical care, emergency assistance or international cooperation would be inconceivable without air transport.

The governance factor (G), meanwhile, assesses the impact of both the structure and the administrative actions of companies. The greatest impact is, among others, transparency.

If we focus on the environmental factor, which is the most striking in terms of its implications, the objective of decarbonising the aviation sector stands out among the challenges it contemplates. By way of example, let us look at some lines of work that are particularly significant in this area:


Use of more sustainable fuels.

For some years now, a new generation of SAF (Sustainable Aviation Fuel) has been produced from recycled materials such as cooking oil or biological waste. Compared to traditional fossil fuels, these new sustainable fuels can reduce CO2 emissions by 80%. Forestry or agricultural wastes and residues are part of the production of SAF, along with municipal solid waste (MSW) or algae.

Work is also underway on technologies (such as electro fuels) based on carbon from waste gases or direct air capture combined with hydrogen from renewable energies and SAF.


Electrical systems.

The evolution of the electrical systems has been oriented towards two specific objectives: aircraft electrification (MEA) and electric propulsion.

MEA (More Electric Aircraft) refers to the tendency to increase the electronic systems of the aircraft, replacing the hydraulic, mechanical or pneumatic systems.

Electric propulsion, meanwhile, is designed to keep aircraft flying without using fossil fuels. At the moment there are already some commercial airlines with small aircraft for short flights that only operate electric flights. This type of propulsion will probably never reach (at least with current knowledge and technology) large jets, but any progress that can be made in this direction for smaller aircrafts will be a good step forward.


Hybrid/electric propulsion

 Refers to propulsion systems that combine conventional jet engines and electric motors. According to current lines of work, there are several trends, two of which are of interest: On the one hand, the provision of additional thrust at take-off (short high-thrust flight segment) by the electric motors which cease to operate during cruise flight.

On the other hand, there is the development of hybrid electric propulsion systems that allow fuel savings during long sections of low-thrust cruise flight.


Hydrogen as a fuel

There are still many challenges to overcome, but hydrogen promises abundant, clean and sustainable energy, with water vapour being its only by-product.

In recent years there has been considerable progress in hydrogen fuel cell technology and, in fact, there is a significant effort in the European Union to support the advancement of hydrogen for aviation.

An important advantage of the hydrogen stored in the plane is that it can also be used as a source of electric power other than propulsion. In this respect, the distributed generation of electrical power along the fuselage of the aircraft, using hydrogen-powered fuel cells, is one of the most important features of this technology.


Sustainability in the airport environment

Airports are on the same path. In 2009, the ACI (Airports Council International) launched the Airport Carbon Accreditation (ACC) in Europe, aimed at promoting and streamlining the actions undertaken by airports to reduce carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Today, more than 400 airports are participating in this commitment in 86 countries, accounting for 49.5% of global passenger traffic in the world. For more information on this topic, you can read the post Airports and the fight against climate change, in this blog.


In short, far from the voices that point the finger at the aeronautics and the aviation sector as highly polluting, it is fair to point out that the efforts undertaken in the 1990s to improve the sustainability of this sector are already evident. The increase in aircraft efficiency, the use of new materials, the optimisation of fuels, research into new sources and many other lines of work have managed to increase the sector’s overall sustainability by more than 30%. And, as we have already reviewed, there is still a long way to go.


Sustainability in the aerospace sector

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