Consistency is key to aviation’s net zero aims
Rob Biddlecombe, partner and environmental specialist at leading independent law firm Brabners, explores some of the key factors that will help the aviation sector accelerate the transition to net zero.
The transition to net zero represents arguably the most pressing business challenge – and opportunity – of this generation. Those in the North West’s aerospace sector will be acutely aware of the issue, with commercial and freight air travel estimated to account for around 2.5% of annual global CO2 emissions.
Since its inception, aviation has been innovative by nature, and this is becoming increasingly evident as the sector rises to the challenge. However, success will involve engraining sustainable practices throughout the whole aviation process, from production to take off.
This will be no mean feat and is a challenge that will straddle multiple government administrations. So, what will it take, and how can the North West’s aerospace ecosystem best seize the opportunity?
Fuel for thought
A large proportion of the CO2 emissions produced by aviation come from the exhausts of commercial aircraft. With this in mind, it’s of little surprise that most resource is being diverted towards the development of sustainable fuels.
Just recently, Virgin Atlantic successfully completed the first transatlantic passenger flight using sustainable alternative fuel (SAF), largely comprising cooking oil. Many key sector figures see the flight – which was underpinned by UK government funding – as proof that a greener, more sustainable way of flying is possible and within reach.
Virgin’s CEO Shai Wess used the flight to make the case for further financial support from governments, stating that “in order to reach production at scale, we need to see significantly more investment”. Indeed, SAFs remain costly to develop, and still require a large amount of energy input to produce.
It’s important that we recognise that SAFs are not the only solution to tackling aviation’s emission problem though. Parallel to Virgin’s work in fuel innovation, some of the most exciting and innovative developments in sustainable aviation are happening in our factories.
Many in the manufacturing sector will be buoyed by the government’s recent decision to provide just under a billion pounds of extra funding to support the development of low or no emission vehicles and aircraft equipment.
To accompany the government’s funding, Dame Angela McLean completed an independent review into the regulatory landscape supporting strategic and advanced manufacturing. As part of the report, she highlighted a number of key technological developments that the sector is seizing upon to drive sustainable manufacturing.
One such example is digital twin technology. A digital twin is an extension into a virtual model of a real-world entity, environment or process. The use of digital twins in the advanced manufacturing sector enables companies to create accurate virtual replicas of the full manufacturing process, from the movement of human employees within a factory to the status of physical machinery and the design and performance of end products.
This allows manufacturers to achieve far more, with far fewer resources: from designing a new product to planning the production process and manufacturing it, all the way to repairing and recycling. A recent report from EY found that digital twins can help to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprint of an existing factory building by up to 50 per cent, alongside cost savings of up to 35 per cent.
Digital twins and the industrial internet of things are increasing in uptake amongst aerospace manufacturers and are a positive opportunity for the North West’s aviation sector, particular with northern-based tech giants like Siemens acting as leading proponents of the technology.
There are similar opportunities to reduce wastage being presented by developments in composite recycling. While composite materials can make a positive impact on energy efficiency, durability and weight reduction in vehicles, aircraft and wind turbines, their end-of-life treatment has traditionally been challenging and costly.
However, as outlined by Dame Angela’s report, new trends in chemical recycling present the opportunity for plastic waste, including hard-to-recycle plastic products such as films and laminated plastics, to be converted into feedstock.
Seizing the opportunity
These developments represent significant opportunities for North West aerospace to make strides forward on the path to net zero.
Just how we achieve this has been a key focus among Brabners’ True North network, which comprises change-making organisations from across the region including aerospace leaders like the AMRC and educational institutions such as the University of Liverpool.
One of the key focuses of True North is to encourage businesses to recognise the impact they can make in addressing the climate emergency, and how impactful investment can make a significant difference. A common theme emerging from our discussions is that of collaboration, which holds the key to unlocking the region’s potential and delivering inclusive growth. This mirrors Dame Angela’s recommendations, which advocates for the exchange of knowledge between academia, regulatory bodies and the private sector.
Underpinning this is a desire amongst businesses for a consistent policy approach. Recent funding announcements – not least the £4.5bn in total allocated to British manufacturing in the Autumn Statement – will leave North West businesses feeling more positive about the net zero challenge.
However, building for the future requires certainty – and with a general election looming, businesses need guarantees that any future government will continue to recognise the importance of tackling the net zero challenge.
And even if these assurances were in place, there remains a number of regulatory challenges businesses will need to navigate to ensure that they are well-positioned to deliver sustainable transformation. For example, at Brabners we regularly advise on environmental and sustainability issues affecting supply chains, including producer responsibility, greenwashing, plastic packaging tax, and chemical regulations.
By tackling these issues proactively, and by helping to foster an environment in which collaboration is encouraged, the aerospace sector can place itself at the forefront of delivering sustainable transformation.
For more information on the True North network, and our efforts to boost collaboration in the North, click here.