Rolls-Royce CEO Warren East. Picture: REUTERS
Rolls-Royce CEO Warren East. Picture: REUTERS

London — Rolls-Royce Holdings CEO Warren East warned that the aviation industry faces a damaging backlash from the public and regulators if its fails to step up efforts to slash carbon emissions.

Aggressive targets for cutting aviation’s carbon dioxide footprint that seemed sufficient a decade ago are no longer enough, East said at an event in London.

“The public thinks we’re 10-times worse than we are,” he said. “If sectors which also have to decarbonise move relatively quickly because it’s easier for them, our sector is going to look pretty bad. We’re in danger of allowing the world to reinforce the misconception that we’re the villains of the piece.”

While aviation currently accounts for only 2% of man-made carbon discharges, emissions have more than doubled since 1990 as a burgeoning middle-class stokes demand for flights. The UN reckons airlines will overtake power generation as the biggest producer within three decades, assuming other sectors build on moves to adopt alternative technologies, such as electric cars.

East said it’s only a matter of time before the UN includes aviation in its more ambitious targets, adding “you can feel the pressure growing”. Different areas of the industry must come together and work with government, he said, while also embracing the role of start-ups in tackling the problem.

The CEO was speaking late on Wednesday in front of members of the UK’s ADS Group for trade, which represents more than 1,000 aerospace, defence, security and space companies.

It’s too early to be sure what mix of technologies is required to wean aviation off fossil fuels, but “electrification is not a panacea on its own”, he said.

Electric power is a medium-term possibility for smaller aircraft, with hybrid propulsion more realistic for flying further. Longer journeys and bigger planes will remain reliant on jet fuel, so overcoming economic barriers to scaling up production of sustainable propellants is critical, he said.

Rolls-Royce, Europe’s biggest maker of jetliner engines, is pitching the nuclear reactors it also manufactures as the most effective way of powering production of carbon-neutral synthetic fuel without draining national grids. East has said that small reactors could be located at plants to generate the large amounts of electricity needed to secure the hydrogen used in the process.


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