Editorial Feature

Sustainability in the Aerospace Industry

Airbus A350 XWB flying at the Paris air show, supposedly the World's most efficient aircraft.
Image credit: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock.com

The aviation industry has a strong history of commitment to the environmental impact of all aspects of aerospace manufacturing, and civil aviation travel. Over the last 50 years there has been a 70% reduction of fuel-burn/passenger-Km, and the aviation industry continues to have a commitment to achieve further emissions reduction and production impact and costs.

As part of this, in 2012 the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) produced a briefing document for the United Nations Rio+20 conference on Sustainable Development in Rio, Brazil. This outlined ICAO's ongoing commitment to sustainable development in all areas of the aerospace industry.

The briefing committed ICAO to development of global solutions for the continued sustainable future for international civil aviation in partnership with industry, interested UN agencies and relevant NGO's. To achieve this the aviation industry has, and continues to, develop sustainable aviation fuels and manufacturing practices.

The Road to a Sustainable Future for International Aviation

The Road to a Sustainable Future for International Aviation.
Video credit: ICAOvideo / YouTube

Sustainable Aviation Fuel

The ICAO briefing document makes clear how much the aviation industry is committed to sustainability. The UK aerospace industry is the largest in Europe and its ambition in achieving sustainable fuel production, includes measures to reduce carbon emissions that will contribute to a reduction of the CO2 produced by 2050, of 24%.

This will result in the creation of between 90 and 160 operational fuel plants worldwide, and in the UK alone developments in the sustainable fuel industry that could contribute up to £265M by 2030. This would support 3,400 jobs, with a further 1,000 jobs generated in global exports.

The necessary R&D needed to achieve this focuses on the possible use of sustainable biofuels, and the contribution which their use by UK aviation alone could contribute to CO2 emission levels by 2050 is of the order of a 15 to 24% reduction.

British Airways and Virgin Atlantic are 2 UK companies which are making use of developments in this area. BA plans to use by 2015, fuel manufactured from Europe's first sustainable jet-fuel plant that will generate a biofuel that has been converted from a variety of carbon-based feedstocks that were destined for landfill.

Virgin, from around 2014 will be using a jet-fuel that has been chemically converted from ethanol using a naturally occurring microbe. The ethanol having been fermented from various C-O gases captured from steel production.

An aerial view of a modern biofuel production facility.
Image credit: Stockr / Shutterstock.com

This process recycles carbon and the biofuel produced has a carbon footprint approximately half or less that seen with kerosene. There is a recommendation within the industry that a 50% reduction in life-cycle greenhouse gas emission is currently the yardstick for a sustainable biofuel.

The impact of sustainability measures for aviation fuel must go further than just emission levels. The aviation industry has committed to ensuring that the manufacture of biofuels must not displace or compete with food crops or cause deforestation, minimise the impact on biodiversity, produce substantially lower life cycle emissions than fossil fuels, be sustainable with respect to land, water & energy use, and deliver positive socioeconomic impacts.

Regular commercial use of aviation biofuels must become economically viable and cost-competitive over the long term. There are many that are not in the short term. This is an area where government policy is needed to target reduction of investment risks.

In the long term though biofuels for aviation are expected to become competitive because of projected increases in fossil fuel prices and the application of carbon pricing in global economics, with increasing costs of carbon.

Sustainable Manufacturing Practices

Present and future sustainable aerospace R&D involves not only research into sustainable biofuels but also manufacturing practices. This focuses on production modification and facility practices.

The aerospace industry trend has seen a gradual but clear shift to fuel efficient vehicles and future generations of planes incorporate new materials that have lower processing costs and using more composite materials which do not require environmentally harsh metal surface finishers and product improvement which improve existing aerospace products when the cost of new products becomes too high.

For example, Boeing are working on using parts in their early versions of the 767 which improve lift and the environmental burdens encountered during use. There are also a number of facility level practices being undertaken, which can be divided into two categories - regulatory and general.

Boeing 767 S7 air undergoing a maintenance procedure.
Image credit: aapsky / Shutterstock.com

Regulatory initiatives ensure environmental legislation is adhered to and the relevant certification status, or external or internal code of conduct is met. The general practices are on the whole voluntary open ended. Also they do not require certification.

Regulatory Compliance

All facilities used for aerospace manufacturing must follow guidelines made by the applicable governing body. These are designed to maintain and ensure levels of quality for air, land, and water. Typical guidelines include legislation to ensure a comprehensive environmental response compensation and liability; clean air; and safe drinking water.

The Aerospace industry also work to attain certification which demonstrates their progress with implementing environmental policies.

One such certification is the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certificate. This certificate reflects the specific sites' commitment to the implementation of environmental policies.

There are also company specific internal initiatives. These vary from company to company, but a typical example can be seen within Boeing, who introduced a workshop that ensured the company was helped to streamline the company and reduce inefficiencies and waste which benefited the company right down to the manufacturing floor level.

General Initiatives

These are very wide ranging in their scope and how they are implemented. However they are generally common practice for the aerospace industry leaders. To cover the extent of the variety of these initiatives would require a separate article but they cover areas such as recycling drives, awareness campaigns, outreach programs and public transportation promotion initiatives.

Specifically companies can implement improvement in plumbing for employee facilities; use of more efficient light and heating & cooling controls. These initiatives are also used in the application by companies seeking some of the certificates mentioned earlier.


We have seen in this article the extent of the aerospace industry's commitment to sustainability, and what it has already achieved in this area. This is making an important contribution particularly as we move towards the UN conference on Climate Change in Paris at the end of this year, where 196 countries will be signing up to binding commitments to reducing CO2 levels.



  1. Eric Fisher Eric Fisher United States says:

    Ethanol probably not a good path.  Should consider liquid hydrogen made with solar panels. Solar panel are 15 times more efficient than corn crops in energy conversion.

The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of AZoCleantech.com.

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