Deloitte: Green airplanes can dominate short-haul flights by 2040

15 April 2021 4 min. read
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By 2040, zero-carbon and zero-emission aircraft could make up a sizeable share of short-haul flights in Europe, slashing the climate impact of one of the continent’s most polluting sectors.This is according a new study by Deloitte.

The backdrop is climate change and the global decarbonisation imperative. Aviation accounts for roughly 3% of global carbon emissions today, and will produce more than 25% by 2050 if left unchecked. Pressure to go green is mounting from consumers, regulators, competitors and other emission-heavy sectors that have made big strides towards sustainability. 

In June last year, a dozen air transport associations from across Europe urged EU leaders to earmark funds for decarbonising air travel amid the post-pandemic travel resurgence. In February 2021, Europe’s airline industry pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, laying down a plan of action. 

Key market segments for decarbonizing aviation in the EU

The imperative is clear: the question remains of how to decarbonise effectively. As noted by Deloitte global aviation lead Bryan Terry, “incremental improvements of existing systems won’t suffice to reach the decarbonisation ambitions put forth by the EU Commission in its European Green Deal within reasonable timelines.” 

“As most of aviation emissions are related to the combustion of kerosene, it is crucial to focus on how airplanes are powered and uncover new and sustainable ways to propel aircraft.” And many such innovations are in the works. Deloitte highlights two in particular that will be ready for an effective rollout by 2040: batteries and hydrogen.

Electrification is well on its way in the automotive sector, and batteries can be used to power propellers or ducted fans for thrust as well. Provided that batteries can be charged with renewable energy, electric aircraft would be a zero-emission mode of long-distance travel – marking a 100% decrease from the current climate impact.

Key passenger segments for zero-carbon and zero-emission aircraft

The drawback here is that power density from batteries will be lower than that of kerosene, even in 2040. As a result, electric planes will have a maximum flight range of 500 kms and a capacity of 120 passengers at most. Tickets will also be marginally more expensive, while flight time could increase by up to 30%. 

The second technology in focus is hydrogen, which can either be used to produce fuel cells for electrification, or used in liquid form as a sustainably produced, low-emission combustion fuel – also known as green hydrogen. Hydrogen fuel cells can boost the range of an electric aircraft to 1,000 kms, although the capacity then falls to a maximum of 100 passengers with roughly the same increase in ticket price and flight time. Emission cuts also drop marginally here to 75-90%. 

Combusting fuel-grade hydrogen to propel aircraft is perhaps the best way to replicate a kerosene-powered aircraft. These planes can seat up to 180 people, and travel up to 2,000 kms with a minimal jump in flight time and roughly the same increase in price as the other green technologies. The drawback is that emission cuts could halve with combustable hydrogen. 

Climate impact reduction

So the technology might not be ready for a complete overhaul by 2040. That said, each of these alternatives is capable of powering short-haul flights – known to be the most emission-heavy as take-off and landing burn the most fuel. Deloitte Netherlands lead for future of mobility Willem Christiaan van Manen explained how optimising these tools could deliver a strong decarbonisation impact.

Climate impact reduction from low-carbon and zero-carbon aircraft

“Configured to best maximise the passenger- range ratio, battery- and hydrogen-based airplanes can be operated on key market segments where both passenger demand and climate impact reduction potentials are the highest.” In focus is the short-haul travel segment within the EU.

“Almost 90% of intra-European passenger air transport would fall into the operating segments of zero-carbon and zero-emissions aircraft in 2040.” Provided that actual adoption and penetration align with this realisation, Europe’s aviation sector could cut its climate impact by nearly 60% in the next two decades. 

As it stands, EU governments are pressuring airlines to cut out short-haul flights, arguing in favour of electric vehicles and rail for their low carbon footprint. “The advent of zero-carbon and zero-emissions aircraft could significantly impact the discourse and drive government support for the aviation sector,” concluded Terry.