Fresh energy for decarbonization

The United States government at the moment is giving no hints that it is ready for the dramatic shift that’s afoot on the issue of decarbonizing the air transportation sector. If the wheels are already turning internally on this problem in the Biden administration, that’s good, because the latest climate science looks dire. See for example, “Rate of mass loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet will exceed Holocene values this century,” in the journal Nature’s October 2020 issue.

Simply put, no sector can be given a pass under the Biden administration’s pledge to create a net-zero economy by 2050, and increasingly, the industry doesn’t seem to want one.

To sense the shift that’s underway, consider that the air transportation industry’s position has long been that the best it could do globally was a 50% reduction in net carbon output by 2050, the Paris Agreement’s point of no return for damaging climate impacts. Regionally, however, airlines, airports and industry groups are starting to embrace the more aggressive goal, just as the industry’s Air Transportation Action Group last year predicted would happen. The European sector in February announced that it will target net-zero emissions by 2050 for flights departing from the European Union, plus Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway, Switzerland and the U.K. At least 20 airlines, including American and United, are now targeting net-zero by 2050.

In this issue, we provide some valuable but initial insights about how to achieve this more ambitious goal. The opinion piece on Page 40, “Decarbonizing by 2050: Optimists, pessimists and realists,” assesses the technologies that researchers and planners must either master or perhaps set aside, and quickly, if they are to meet aggressive decarbonization goals. Our story on Page 9, “From food to jet fuel,” provides an example of the kind of breakthroughs that will be needed. The Flight Path column, “Our role in assuring a cleaner, greener future,” emphasizes that AIAA stands ready to help.

Of course, the technical brainstorming will be the fun part. Figuring out how to fund the required breakthroughs will be less so. Should NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate become the focal point for American contributions to the international collaboration that will be required? That sounds logical, but right now this directorate, the first A in NASA, comprises 3.5% of NASA’s $23 billion annual budget. Those with the other 96.5% are presumably fond of their missions too.

Nevertheless, we’ll soon find out if a dramatic shift is at hand when the Biden administration unveils its fiscal 2022 budget request. Such a shift would seem to require digging into funding for human spaceflight and space science and technology in ways that would be painful and maybe even politically untenable.

So what to do? Research contributions are likely to be made by corporations through their internal research and development dollars, and by the Energy Department and FAA. What’s needed, though, is a systems approach that ties together transformative designs, propulsion and energy, fuels and ground infrastructure. The agency born from the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics seems like the best one to do that.

No matter what the Biden administration has in store, I’m mindful that our future can’t rest entirely on political leadership.

Problems like this one will test us all, from the media, to the halls of governments, to the nonprofit and profit worlds to academia.

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About Ben Iannotta

Ben keeps the magazine and its news coverage on the cutting edge of journalism. He began working for the magazine in the 1990s as a freelance contributor and became editor-in-chief in 2013. He was editor of C4ISR Journal and has written for Air & Space Smithsonian, New Scientist, Popular Mechanics, Reuters and Space News.

Fresh energy for decarbonization