In the coming decade, Airbus and Boeing will make money from the airlines' push for sustainability by promoting the sale of new, more efficient jets to replace older planes that burn more gas and produce more carbon emissions. But further out, the plane builders will need to develop dramatically new technologies.
Airbus is already aggressively pursuing research to develop by 2035 a zero-emission, short-haul airliner powered with hydrogen. That research is largely funded by European governments.
Boeing contends that hydrogen-powered aircraft won't be realistic until as late as 2050. But as Mike Sinnett, Boeing vice president of product development, recently said, "whatever the next airplane is, we recognize sustainability is going to be a driving factor."
After the world's airlines announced the new "net zero by 2050" goal at this month's annual conference of the International Air Transport Association, IATA Director General Willie Walsh demanded a big technology leap from Airbus and Boeing.
"It's not good enough that we get incremental change in efficiency with the aircraft," Walsh said. "To get to net zero we're going to need a fundamental change."
The latest definitive scientific study estimates that aviation contributes a net 3.5% of total human-induced climate impact. Cleaning it up has become a focus of those who see an existential crisis in climate change.
"There is a limited time for a life-altering change for my generation and my children's generation," said Sarah Shifley, a lawyer who volunteers on the aviation team of climate activist group 350 Seattle.
This summer, 350 Seattle mounted a campaign opposing a planned expansion of flights at Boeing Field, where corporate jets and cargo aircraft, as well as Boeing delivery and test flights, fly in and out.
Locally, the Puget Sound Regional Council that makes long-term decisions about transportation needs — and is weighing the need for one or more new airports — projects takeoffs and landings in the region will double by 2050 to over 800,000. In similar fashion, Boeing projects the world's fleet of airliners doubling by 2040, driven by growth in emerging economies.