Aviation industry needs more investment to reach 2050 net-zero goal

Target is 'doable' but more investments needed in clean fuels such as SAF and hydrogen, Embraer executive says

Brazilian plane maker Embraer expects a gradual improvement in supply chain issues this year. Reuters
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The aviation industry's aim of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 remains “doable” but more investment is needed to ramp up sustainable aviation fuels and hydrogen to power new aircraft designs in the future.

The industry must explore all solutions, including the use of clean fuels on existing aircraft and developing new aircraft technologies such as electric, hydrogen-powered and hybrid designs. Capitalising on fuel-efficient new models currently in the market must also be examined, Arjan Meijer, chief executive of Embraer’s commercial aircraft unit has said.

“I think it's not doable with each of the solutions by itself, so we're gonna have to bet on all the horses to get there,” he told The National at the annual meeting of the International Air Transport Association on Sunday.

“The aviation industry cannot do this by itself, we need the help of producers to get enough SAF and hydrogen … we believe the target is possible but we're going to need a lot of help on the production side and a lot of investments in SAF and hydrogen.”

Mr Meijer was speaking during the Iata gathering of top aviation executives in Istanbul, where they are expected to discuss how industry stakeholders can turn climate goals into concrete actions.

The meeting comes against increasing pressure on the aviation industry to reduce its carbon footprint amid a faster-than-expected recovery in the sector following the Covid pandemic.

Executives at the summit will detail how they aim to meet the target of net-zero emissions by 2050.

SAF, which is made from resources such as agricultural waste, green hydrogen and cooking oil, is widely considered to be the most significant contributor to helping the sector reach its net-zero aim.

However, supply is limited and prices are two to five times higher than jet fuel.

“Hydrogen is going to be a small contribution purely because the technology needs to be developed and more green hydrogen needs to be developed,” Mr Meijer said.

“Electric technologies will be contributing, but it will be very minimal because it's only going to be applicable to very small aircraft and very short range”.

The use of SAF and operating fuel-efficient aircraft models will contribute a “significant chunk” of achieving climate goals in the short to medium term, he said.

“Technology-wise we will get there … the big challenge is how can we get to affordable fuels for the industry and get across the hurdle of embracing a fuel that in the early days will be expensive,” he said.

“That's where government help is needed to incentivise production, that would incentivise airlines to use SAF and make sure that we have a level playing field for all airlines.”

Aviation industry leaders “collectively need to get our head around” an action plan for more sustainable operations.

“There's no unclarity about the challenge, it's really how do we get there collectively … we're taking our responsibility in developing and investing but it's going to be a puzzle that we need to solve together,” the executive said.

Arjan Meijer, chief executive of Embraer’s commercial aircraft unit, said that while aviation supply chain issues are improving, they will remain a challenge 'in the years ahead'. Photo: Embraer

New turboprop plans 'currently on hold'

Embraer had initially said that its proposed passenger turboprop programme, which will be capable of running entirely on SAF, was planned for launch in mid-2023 amid talks to select an engine maker.

However, the company could not find an engine that matched its needs in terms of factors including fuel burn, operating costs and reliability.

“The system selection had some challenges, especially on the engine side. We've struggled to find the engine with the right credentials to put on the aircraft.

“We had two options offered to us and we took a very serious look, but in the end, we need to get into a design space where the aircraft is going to sell,” Mr Meijer said.

Embraer will now “take a step back”, look at newer technologies and review how the planned turboprop will fit into its platform Energia, which explores a range of sustainable concepts to carry up to 50 passengers.

The new turboprop programme is “currently on hold” with talks with engine makers continuing.

Their planned entry into service, initially set for 2028, will now be pushed back into “the early 2030s”.

Complementing China's Comac

Asked about the entry of China's plane maker Commercial Aviation Corp of China into the market, following the maiden commercial flight of its domestically produced C919 narrowbody jet, Mr Meijer said Embraer's regional aircraft can complement the new company's offerings.

Embraer's E2 family of E190 and E195 aircraft “nicely fits” between Comac's ARJ-21 regional jet and the C919 single-aisle aircraft, he said.

The E195-E2 can help Chinese airlines develop secondary and tertiary routes within the country, while the E190-E2 has “extremely good performance” in the high Tibetan plateau.

The E190-E2 and E195-E2 offer seating of up to 114 and 146 passengers, respectively.

“Especially with China developing its own products, Embraer could be a great addition to fill the portfolio in China,” he said.

Currently, 85 E-jets are flying with Tianjin Airlines, Hebei Airlines, Beibu Gulf Airlines and Colorful Guizhou Airlines in China.

The Embraer E190-E2 was certified by the Civil Aviation Administration of China in November 2022.

Supply chain woes

Regarding supply chain problems facing the aviation industry, Mr Meijer said that Embraer is “coping well” and expects a gradual improvement throughout this year.

“That doesn't mean problems will disappear entirely, there are still pockets of challenges in terms of critical manpower and materials, so that's what needs to solve itself … I think we will continue to see some challenges in the years ahead.”

Embraer expects to deliver 65 to 70 units by its commercial aircraft unit this year and “that's taking into account the [supply chain] challenges we have today,” he said.

That compares with 57 commercial aircraft delivered last year.

Aircraft manufacturers have struggled to increase production at a time when airlines are clamouring for new jets to meet the surge in travel demand.

Shortages in materials, plane parts and labour have restricted their output.

Updated: June 04, 2023, 1:22 PM