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Net-zero flight put on the COP26 runway by Cambridge University accelerator



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The journey towards net-zero flight has been given a lift after the University of Cambridge launched its Aviation Impact Accelerator (AIA).

Dr Elizabeth Tennyson, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge and country programme manager within the Centre for Global Equality for the Climate Compatible Growth initiative
Dr Elizabeth Tennyson, postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cambridge and country programme manager within the Centre for Global Equality for the Climate Compatible Growth initiative

The international group of experts in aerospace, economics, policy, and climate science are building an interactive evidence-based simulator to explore scenarios for achieving the goal. The AIA will officially launch at COP26 in November.

It was conceived in 2020 at a roundtable hosted by HRH The Prince of Wales and attended by senior industry leaders, government and academia.

The Prince of Wales has flagged up the urgency of the need for net-zero aviation. In September 2020, in his opening address to the American Society of Mechanical Engineers Turbo Expo conference, he said: “While many are calling for net zero flight by 2050, I would like to challenge you all to think about halving that time frame to 2035.”

“The Aviation Impact Accelerator will play a vital role in highlighting the action required to achieve net zero aviation,” said John Holland-Kaye, CEO of Heathrow Airport. “The first priority is accelerated use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Government can act to unlock SAF through a mandate stimulating supply, plus incentives to drive demand. The prize is a new British growth industry and UK leadership in the race to net zero.”

The AIA is led by the Whittle Laboratory and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).

“Achieving an aviation sector with no climate impact is one of society’s biggest challenges,” said Professor Rob Miller, director of the Whittle Laboratory and co-lead of the project. “Solving it will require a complex combination of technology, business, human behaviour and policy. We have assembled a world-class team of academics and industry experts to take on this challenge.”

Converting the airline industry to sustainability is a big challenge
Converting the airline industry to sustainability is a big challenge

The AIA team also includes the Air Transportation Systems Lab at University College London, and the Melbourne Energy Institute at the University of Melbourne. The AIA is in partnership with The Prince of Wales’s Sustainable Markets Initiative, The World Economic Forum, Cambridge Zero, MathWorks and SATAVIA, and is supported by industry advisors Rolls-Royce, Boeing, BP, Heathrow and Siemens Energy.

Users will be able to simulate future scenarios to 2050 and calculate resource requirements such as renewable electricity and land use, climate impact – CO2 and non-CO2 – and cost of flying. Options include the type of energy used, such as hydrogen, batteries and a range of sustainable aviation fuels, the type of aircraft and aircraft technologies, the way aircraft are operated, and the value judgments made by the public and government.

The simulator will take a whole system approach – from the source of the electricity to the methods of fuel production and transport – to the passenger journey.

“We must urgently address aviation’s environmental impact as part of systemic decarbonisation of the economy,” said CISL director Claire Shine.

Aviation is one of the most carbon intense forms of transport and particularly hard to decarbonise. Before the Covid-19 pandemic aviation was responsible for 2-3 per cent of global annual CO2 emissions (~8 per cent of UK emissions) and was one of the fastest-growing sectors in terms of CO2 emissions. In addition, the non-CO2 effects of flying are thought to have an even more significant effect on the climate, though the magnitude of the effect is less certain. Although severely disrupted by COVID-19 it is predicted that aviation demand will increase back to the 2019 levels by 2023/24 and continue to grow.



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