Airbus unveils ‘clean’ plane concepts, but will need CO2 targets to drive uptake

Airbus has published three concepts for zero-emissions airplanes to be powered by hydrogen. The images are the plane manufacturer’s latest effort to show it’s working to address the climate impact of flying. Whether they truly mark the beginning of a serious change in aircraft design depends on what Airbus and governments do next. 

Two of the concepts are for conventional-looking aircraft: a turbofan jet engine able to carry 120-200 people over 3,700km; and a turboprop able to carry up to 100 people for 1,850km. The third proposal is for a radical ‘blended wing body’ design with an unusually wide fuselage that gives multiple options for hydrogen storage and distribution. It would carry up to 200 passengers. All three have ranges similar to current aircraft used for intra-EU travel.

Airbus has set itself a deadline of 2035 to put a zero-emission commercial aircraft into service. To achieve this it would need to select technologies by 2025, the company said.

Previous industry estimates had put the arrival of hydrogen planes around 2040. This is due to the technological demands of storing the fuel: hydrogen is volatile and would need to be kept at very low temperatures, posing safety challenges and, with greater volume, leaving less space for passengers.

Airbus says it also supports synthetic fuel, which could be used in existing jet engines and, if made with additional renewable electricity and CO2 captured directly from the air, does not cause extra carbon emissions. 

It remains to be seen how serious Airbus’s commitment to hydrogen aircraft really is. Similar plans were announced in 2002 but ditched a decade later. It also remains unclear whether what resources, if any, Airbus is committing to the project. For comparison, Volkwagen’s electric initiative was accompanied by a €60 billion spending plan.

Even if Airbus overcomes the technological challenges, it must still cross significant hurdles in having the new hydrogen jets certified as safe by 2035. It must also convince airlines to upgrade their fleets to the new technology, which would require pilot retraining and airport redesign. Given the scale of this industrial challenge and the competition Airbus is facing from others like Boeing, the project may never take off. To provide investment certainty, T&E said an aviation CO2 target would be needed. One of the options could include introducing a ban on short-haul intra-EU flights with fossil-fuel powered aircraft. 

Andrew Murphy, aviation director at T&E, said: ‘Airbus’ announcement is admirable, but the scale of the challenge means it wont take place unless there is strong support and direction set by governments. That means ambitious and binding CO2 targets accompanied by laws that create investment certainty for zero-emission fuels and aircraft.’