News Releases

Closing R&D loops in aviation decarbonisation

By Benjamin Williams, Account Executive, Net Zero Transition
By Benjamin Williams, Account Executive, Net Zero Transition

The transport sector is one of the UK’s largest industries, with huge employment, export and growth potential as it transitions towards a low-carbon economy. Aviation alone contributes over £31bn to the UK economy annually and is set to rise. The decarbonisation of the aviation sector is crucial to capturing this potential growth for the UK, as well as meeting net-zero targets – the Government’s Jet Zero Strategy makes clear this growth is dependent on being first and best at developing and producing new technologies.

But in a (rightly) highly regulated sector, ensuring the right policy incentives and regulatory approach are adopted is crucial for success.

Worldwide, aviation is responsible for 2.5% of all carbon emissions, and over 5% when non-CO2 emissions are taken into account. The International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation (ISCA), predicts aviation could represent a staggering 22% of global CO2 emissions by 2050. Global transport demand has largely returned to pre-pandemic levels and looks likely to keep rising. The UK aerospace industry is the second largest in the world, behind only that of the United States and has one the most renowned and effective R&D environments in the world. In 2022 the Government announced funding to the tune of £39.8 billion between 2022-2025 to help deliver the government's Innovation Strategy. The UK has the opportunity to position itself as a leader in green technology solutions for aviation.

What innovations are we seeing in aviation?

Disruptive innovations in aerospace are pushing through into the mainstream and are now scaling up.

The most widely acknowledged technologies are electrification via hydrogen, hydrogen combustion, and Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAFs), but new innovations are emerging in aerospace that are making people rethink flying, including vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft, and hybrid aircraft, which take the best elements of Lighter than Air (LTA) aircraft and conventional aeroplanes to deliver clear pathways to zero-emissions flight, and open up new routes and use-cases.

SAFs include bio and synthetic fuels and offer an instant reduction in emissions. They also significantly reduce other harmful emissions such as particulates and sulphur by 90% and 100% respectively. However, there are challenges to the scalability of some forms of SAFs due to issues including land use, feedstock quantity, and the construction of plants as demand is set to increase exponentially. There is concern that UK, and global supply will not be able to maintain pace. However, a solution to this is to supplement biofuels with e-fuels. E-fuels can be created through the Fischer Tropsch process, using electricity from low-carbon sources and carbon extracted from the atmosphere via Direct Air Capture (DAC), offering carbon reductions two-fold.

In comparison, hydrogen-powered aviation offers a true reduction in emissions. An electric engine powered by a hydrogen fuel cell could provide zero-emission flight and eliminate other harmful pollutants. In the last 3 years we have seen a rapid progression of the technology as company R&D programmes scale to larger engines. Madano worked with aviation clients to secure the necessary support for two match-funded innovation programmes that led to exciting world-first developments. This is a prime example of the UK Government’s R&D budget being put to good use.

However, as green technology scales quickly, other countries - not least the US, as seen most clearly in the Inflation Reduction Act - are announcing policy incentives and funding to attract companies and drive forward the commercialisation of technology. But the UK currently has relatively few mechanisms to compete with these support packages and is leaving money on the table through its failure to close R&D loops.

Over the next two decades, the number of planes needed worldwide is expected to grow by an average of 4.8% a year, with demand for an estimated 39,620 new planes worth $5.9trn. However, as countries, including the UK, commit to emission reductions and net-zero, aviation is seen as a critical sector to address while being one of the hardest-to-abate. The Government must do more to support the commercialisation of low-carbon technologies, to ensure that companies are able to manufacture and implement their technology. This would enact real world change and ensure that the UK sees the wider growth impacts the transport sector has and bring the UK, and the world, closer to its net-zero targets.

Madano has worked directly with innovative, disruptive companies in the aviation sector for many years, from hydrogen electric engine producers, to hybrid air vehicle manufacturers, and on related carbon capture and storage projects. We help our clients to deliver strategic, impactful public relations and public affairs campaigns to secure funding, create brand awareness, and to influence and create the political and policy decisions that are needed for the implementation of nascent technologies across the sector. 

To find out more about our work and expertise in the net-zero transition follow the link here.