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BLOG: Reducing aviation’s emissions starts before take-off


Aviation has many benefits for our world. Arguably, no other industry has done more globally to connect people, power economies, and enable progress than aviation.

For each new generation thus far, aviation has opened new frontiers and created new opportunities for connecting people and ideas.

Right now, the aviation industry is working to recover from the unprecedented impact of COVID-19. Whilst helping to safely keep the world moving during this period of uncertainty remains the immediate priority, we must still look ahead to the future.

This is a future in which aviation must manage both the long-term financial effects of the global pandemic and operational challenges as more flights resume, while also navigating the path to ambitious emissions reductions across the industry.

Due to the exceptionally low level of aviation activity in 2020, ICAO has taken the decision to remove 2020 data when calculating the baseline emissions level for its Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) programme.

From 2021, CORSIA will provide a baseline for carbon-neutral growth of airlines, which will now be based solely on 2019 data.

Despite this, the societal pressure on the industry to become more sustainable will remain, as airlines are called upon to ensure that, even against the backdrop of such extraordinary operating conditions, they continue efforts to mitigate their environmental impact.

Much of the discussion surrounding how the aviation industry should respond to this sustainability challenge has been dominated by topics of high public interest, new technologies or future innovations.

This includes using sustainable aviation fuel to reduce emissions from flights and offsetting emissions through carbon credits, while also looking ahead to the potential for electric or hydrogen powered aircraft.

There is no question that these are important elements of the industry’s response. We will need a range of methods and technologies in order to advance the sustainability of air travel. But while they might not be grabbing the headlines, now more than ever, technologies that avoid emissions before planes even get in the sky are just as critical to the aviation industry’s efforts to deliver on its carbon reduction ambitions.

Avoiding emissions

Airports are unique places. They are hives of activity that handle the safe passage of thousands of people and tonnes of cargo every day – all while offering the amenities of a small town or city.

Unsurprisingly, they have an unusually high energy demand due to their unique set of requirements – from delivering 24/7 power to gates at borders and baggage handling systems, through to air conditioning in terminals and lighting on the airfield.

As a result, it is important that airports continue to explore ways to increase their use of energy efficiency technologies and renewable energies to help avoid the emissions associated with their large energy demand.

At Seletar Airport in Singapore, we recently installed 150 solar panels on the roof of the airport. This onsite production of renewable electricity is then used to power both our office building and the tank farm where we store our fuel – this can provide up to 60% of the total amount of energy we need for our operations.

More broadly, we are supporting our airport customers across our global refuelling network in finding ways to avoid emissions. Work is underway with Changi, San Francisco and Schiphol airports on a range of diverse areas.

This includes the energy consumption of catering operations, establishing micro grids for alternative power supply and investing in blending and supply chain opportunities for sustainable aviation fuel.

On the apron

But it’s not just about being smarter about how we power airports. Avoiding emissions where possible across airside operations is also key, with the refuelling process being perhaps the most critical aspect of this.

To this end, we introduced an industry-first electric pump jet refuelling vehicle. The 20,000-litre refueller features a fully electric fuelling system and pressure control, enabling a significant reduction in diesel consumption of around 40% when compared to conventional diesel refuellers.

The electric refuelling system allows the vehicle’s diesel engine to be switched off during refuelling, reducing CO2 emissions at the point of use, as well as helping to reduce noise and particulate emissions on the aircraft stand.

We are evaluating opportunities to expand the use of these vehicles across our fleet, recently introducing them into operations at Strasbourg Airport, France. Further vehicles will be launched in 2020 at Zurich Airport and Marseille Provence Airport.

And while the scale of the emissions reduction challenge facing aviation means that bold innovations will be required, from a technological standpoint all measures that help to avoid emissions – no matter on how niche a process or function they relate to – are important.

For our AVGAS operations, at Seletar we introduced a fully electric fuelling trailer which, as well as avoiding the use of diesel engines to power refuelling, has solar panels attached to the roof.

The pumping of the fuel is the part of the refuelling process that uses the most diesel, providing an important development in reducing consumption. The electricity generated from the solar panels is also used to rewind the hose after use, helping to reduce emissions at the point of use further.

For trailers connected to low power refuelling units, such as our AVGAS refueller at Seletar, the solar technology can provide all of the energy needed – reducing trailer emissions by 100%. We have taken this concept one step further at an airport in Oman, which has a hydrant fuel system.

Our ‘solar carts’ are refuelling units that are entirely solar powered, meaning that from the collection of fuel from the hydrant system to the point of refuelling, the process is 100% emissions free

Aside from electrification and other new innovations, it’s also important to ensure that the aviation industry looks for opportunities to reduce the emissions from existing technologies that are currently in operation.

For example, our entire refuelling vehicle fleet in Sweden and Finland is already running on sustainable biodiesel, enabling significant emissions reductions of around 70% on average compared to the use of conventional diesel.

The use of more sustainable transport fuels across ground operations provides an immediate option to lower the air quality impact and carbon emissions of ground operations, without the use of new technologies.

No silver bullet

When discussing the sustainability of aviation, the following question is often fairly posed: “Surely, the best way of avoiding emissions is not to fly all?”

And this is a valid challenge. In virtually every scenario where carbon is created, non-consumption is the most effective means to avoid emissions. But if we accept the benefits that aviation brings, then it is incumbent on innovators across industry to provide solutions which enable people who choose to fly to emit less.

At Shell, we advocate a comprehensive approach to carbon management that involves a range of technologies and solutions to avoid, reduce and offset emissions.

This means the aviation industry needs to develop sustainable aviation fuel production and usage at scale, invest in low-carbon technologies and infrastructure, while also offsetting emissions, today, through high quality nature-based carbon credits.

There is no silver bullet for reducing aviation’s emissions. But, by implementing a holistic approach that tackles emissions produced both in the air and on the ground, the aviation industry will be better positioned to deliver on its ambitions of carbon neutral growth.

– Author, Thomas de Boer, is Shell Aviation’s head of operations.

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