Airbus werkt aan de ontwikkeling van elektrische en hybride-elektrische vliegtuigen Foto: Airbus
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Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who is fighting against climate change, is triggering mixed reactions among the general public. However, this is certainly not the case when it comes to the top of the European aviation industry and the European Commission, who are currently trying to shape research and environmental policy for the coming years.

During the Research & Innovation Days held in Brussels this past week and organized by the European Commission, Grazia Vittadini, Chief Technology Officer of the European aircraft manufacturer Airbusm, began her contribution with a description of the brave young Greta, who sailed to the United States in order to make it clear to the world that she means business as far as a cleaner environment is concerned.

Radical inventions are needed

The world must do away with greenhouse gas emissions and invent a radically new technology for aircraft propulsion in line with the European Commission’s target for 2050, Vittadini argued during the session. All Airbus suppliers, such as engine manufacturers, will need to be involved.

The statements made by the CTO of the second largest aircraft manufacturer in the world serve as input for the new version of the European Commission’s ‘Horizon Europe‘ research program. The European Commission will reserve about €100 billion in total for all research in these areas.

Vittadini said that the most important goal for the aviation sector between now and 2050 is to produce aircraft that no longer emit CO2. Otherwise she believes it will no longer be possible to keep aviation accessible to the growing numbers of passengers it attracts nowadays. There are currently 130,000 flights a day for millions of passengers worldwide. As a consequence, the democratization of aviation may falter, she concludes. “Even though that is precisely what has been achieved in the past century.”

CO2-free aircraft by 2030

The only problem is that the technology for clean flight is not yet available. With Airbus, she hopes that she will be able to deliver a zero-emission hybrid electric airplane with room for 100 passengers for air travel on a regional level by 2030. However, at the moment there does not seem to be such a solution for long haul flights.

The problem is that in the meantime, air traffic is increasing exponentially, as Professor Henri Werij at Delft University of Technology emphasized during the input session. As a result, the benefit of a more efficient use of energy (which also saves on CO2 emissions) of 4.5 per cent per year has already been cancelled out after just two years, he explained. Because if there are more passengers, more planes will fly in and out, and together they will emit more CO2. That’s not making any progress.

Time is of the essence. “We have to move forward,” he said, and received support from Vittadini as well as from the other European aviation industrialists that took part in the discussion.

‘EU money needed for new technology’

“All disciplines must work together. The chemical sector, the car industry. They all have to deal with the fact that they have to replace fossil fuels with clean energy.”

That’s why Werij is advocating that the European Commission invests money in research programs that transcend member states and disciplines. “I understand that this can be difficult. But a bit of support from the European Commission could help here.”