The Problem

Welcome, let's start by reminding ourselves of the sustainable aviation challenge from a first principles perspective.

Our modern world needs a high-speed long-distance air transport system that is safe, convenient, flexible, resilient, affordable, socially acceptable and environmentally sustainable. Whilst trends for most of these elements are improving year on year, there is one in particular that is not; environmental sustainability. What does this mean and why should we care?

Flying long distances at high speed needs a vast amounts of energy. Today this energy is extracted from fossil fuels. Without energy our modern world would grind to a halt. Fossil fuels come from the sun's energy and atmospheric carbon dioxide that was captured by plants through photosynthesis millions of years ago. This occurred during a particular period in the Earth's history called the Carboniferous Period when conditions allowed a vast but fixed quantity of the world's carbon to be buried deep underground. As a result of it being buried the Earth's atmospheric conditions were able to coincidentally and conveniently stabilise in the so-called Goldilocks equilibrium needed for human civilisation to prosper. In particular the volatile global average temperature of hot periods and ice ages levelled out at an ideal 15 degrees Celsius. This occurred because the non-buried carbon that remained in the terrestrial carbon cycle allowed the blanket of the atmosphere around the Earth to regulate the Sun's heat in just the right way. Reversing this photosynthesis through the burning of fossil fuels releases this previously permanently sequestered carbon back into the atmosphere very rapidly. When atmospheric carbon levels rise global temperatures rise, just as they did in the past. The Earth's average temperature doesn't need to rise by very much in a short period of time geographically-speaking to cause environmental impacts that will make things very bad for our economy, global society and you. To compound this, fossil fuels are endful. They can run out, and will in the not too distant future if we continue to exponentially consume them.

Put very simply if we continue to burn fossil fuels as much as we are, things are very likely to get very bad rather soon.

As the people of the world are becoming educated about this global challenge it is inevitable that they will increasingly demand solutions with their votes and with their dollars. This is because it is human nature; we all want a better future. This mega-trend will drive change. The global aviation system will need to change with this trend. Specifically it will need to transition towards a low impact system that produces zero waste and is powered by renewable energy. The smart airlines that desire a long-term future and enhanced returns will move early to position themselves for a strong competitive advantage through innovation and rapid adoption of new technologies. The laggards will be forced to catch up or risk perishing.
There are options to improve the energy efficiency of the air transport system, and these must be continually adopted as they arise (with the side benefit of helping to cut costs), but these will hit hard engineering efficiency limits eventually. Which is where the best long term renewable energy option for aviation comes in to save the day; Sustainable Aviation Fuel. The creation of a new mega-energy industry to produce this hero product will take a number of decades. Time that is running out. Time that will run out without much more positive action to drive step-change technological evolution. Strong nudges will come from government and natural market forces. A maximum 2 degree Celsius global warming limit was set in the UN Paris Agreement. As the global carbon budget is rapidly being consumed, airlines and the energy industry need to be expecting and preparing for a net zero emissions future.
The Sustainable Sky Institute works to attract the world's most talented people to create and provide the tools, resources and information that the air transport sector needs to rapidly but smoothly transition towards a renewable energy future in a carbon constrained world. This will allow the achievement of a high-speed long-distance air transport system that is safe, convenient, flexible, resilient, affordable, socially acceptable and environmentally sustainable. In the bigger picture this will contribute to enabling an economically, socially and environmentally long term sustainable future for our children and all mankind.

Background Subject Matter Primer

This entertaining and insightful background primer expands on the summary of the problem provided above and references all key facts that you need to know to understand the magnitude of the challenge with a focus on highlighting Sustainable Aviation Fuel.