FARNBOROUGH, England — Commercial aerospace companies say the technology they’re developing to help meet a U.K. mandate on net zero emissions by 2050 could have positive implications for the U.S. defense industry.

The U.K. is pushing toward net zero emissions across its economy after becoming the first country to mandate the reduction of greenhouse emissions in 2008. The country’s Department for Transport rolled out a detailed, aviation-focused strategy called “Jet Zero” this week at the Farnborough Airshow in England.

Against the backdrop of record-setting high temperatures this week across Great Britain, the strategy calls for U.K. aviation emissions to stay below pre-pandemic levels. The document builds on the country’s previous 2050 mandate and assigns a more aggressive target for domestic flights and airport operations to reach zero emissions by 2040.

“At current rates, aviation is expected to become one of the largest emitting sectors by 2050,” the strategy states. “We have to break the link between air travel and rising global temperatures. Aviation’s success must no longer damage the planet.”

Throughout the week at the show, U.S. companies showcased their investments in propulsion technologies and alternative fuels as well as internal targets for reducing emissions. Boeing unveiled a new digital modeling tool called Cascade that can predict the impact of different technologies on the industry’s carbon footprint and inform future flight concepts. Raytheon Technologies highlighted efforts to improve the efficiency of its propulsion systems and investments in electrification and sustainable fuel sources.

While much of this work is driven by the U.K.’s mandate and focused on commercial aviation, executives said it will have ripple effects across business areas. They also pointed to a growing interest from the U.S. government, including the Department of Defense, in developing a more robust climate policy.

Last year, the U.S. transportation, agriculture and energy departments agreed to use sustainable aviation fuel to meet 100% of U.S. demand by 2050. And President Joe Biden is expected to announce executive orders this week that target the climate crisis.

Will the US mandate sustainable aviation fuel?

Congress is also developing policies to regulate climate impact across several sectors, including defense. House lawmakers just passed a version of the Fiscal 2023 National Defense Authorization Act that features energy resiliency initiatives, including a requirement that DoD establish a pilot program to test the use of sustainable aviation fuel in military aircraft.

Chris Raymond, chief sustainability officer at Boeing, said he expects the company’s sustainability targets will have far-reaching impact across business units, in the same way that its defense-focused autonomy efforts have been applied to its commercial work.

“One of the reasons I think I’m at the corporate level with a dedicated team is that this issue doesn’t just stop with commercial aviation,” Raymond said during a July 18 media briefing. “We have governments that have declared net-zero ambitions, ministries of defense are focused on this increasingly going forward.”

Defense-sector requirements are also driving the need for sustainability. Raymond pointed to the importance of fuel and energy security in increasingly contested logistics environments. Eric Fanning, president of the Aerospace Industries Association, added that as the U.S. Department of Defense shifts its focus to the Indo-Pacific region, it will need to ability to fly longer distances with more efficient propulsion systems

“They have their eye on that,” Fanning said July 18. “You want to make sure you’re more efficient not just for sustainability, but so that you can cover those ranges.”

Graham Webb, Chief Sustainability Officer at Pratt & Whitney, said he’s had briefings with the U.S. Navy, Air Force and other DoD agencies to share the company’s progress on the use of sustainable aviation fuel. He said he expects the department to make some decisions soon about adopting more alternative fuel sources and he pointed to the provisions in the House’s NDAA as a good sign of progress.

“I would anticipate to see building momentum in that area,” he said.

Pentagon officials may embrace aviation efficiency

Pam Melroy, deputy administrator of NASA, echoed Webb’s comments. NASA, whose origins are in aeronautics research, leads science and technology efforts to support aviation efficiency. Melroy said she’s been disappointed in the past by DoD’s lack of urgency in this area. However, recent discussions with Pentagon leaders, including Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, have been encouraging.

“The DoD has said they want to go forward and are very interested in that,” Melroy said July 18 at Farnborough. “I see the potential to have an enormous impact.”

Melroy said fuel efficiency and alternative sourcing are two areas ripe for NASA-DOD collaboration, noting that the combination of NASA’s research expertise and DoD’s test aircraft inventory provide a great opportunity for experimentation.

“If we have a technology that we’d like to push out for a flight-test demonstration, we’ve got a whole fleet that’s ready to experiment and . . . knows how to do tests,” she said.

Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET's space and emerging technology reporter. She previously covered the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Space Force for Inside Defense.

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