A dual approach to decarbonization in aerospace

Commercial aviation accounted for roughly 3 percent of global CO2 emissions in 2019. When all related factors are included, such as the impact of NOx, contrails, and water vapor, the share could be double that or more. Airlines have already committed to achieving net-zero emissions by 2050, but companies within the aerospace industry—airframe OEMs, propulsion specialists, and other suppliers—also have an opportunity to make the greener products. These companies cannot only support their airline customers in decarbonizing flight operations; they can also decarbonize their own operations—the part of the process they truly own.

For a typical narrowbody aircraft, our analysis shows that about 99 percent of the lifetime CO2 emissions come from fuel, including its sourcing and combustion. About 1 percent is attributed to aircraft manufacturing, assembly, and maintenance, or to the materials used in these processes.1 That is significantly different from the lifetime emissions of a typical passenger car, which has a higher share of emissions from manufacturing, assembly, and materials (Exhibit). A large driver for that difference is that cars typically have a shorter operational life than commercial aircraft and get used less each day.

The lifecycle emissions related to materials, manufacturing, and assembly are higher for cars compared to commercial aircraft.

The difference in emission profiles explains why the automotive and aviation industries are tackling decarbonization in different ways. The automotive industry is reducing lifecycle emissions in two primary ways: first by reducing tailpipe emissions by accelerating the transition to battery-electric, hybrid, and hydrogen-fuel-cell-electric vehicles; second by undertaking circular car initiatives that focus on reducing or eliminating emissions throughout the manufacturing and maintenance processes. Most discussion in the aviation industry, by contrast, has been focused on reducing fuel-related emissions, often referred to as “well-to-wake” emissions, which are counted mostly as scope 1 for airlines and scope 3.11 (use of sold products) for aerospace OEMs.2

In aviation, efforts to reduce well-to-wake emissions are focused on scaling up the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), the most impactful short- and medium-term lever in the decarbonization pathway of the industry. In addition, the industry is developing true zero propulsion technologies, including battery-electric and hydrogen-based propulsion, increased operational efficiency, and undertaking fleet replacement with more modern and fuel-efficient aircraft. But far less attention has been paid to the non-fuel-related emissions of aircraft across their full lifecycle, which encompasses the materials, manufacturing, assembly, and maintenance operations value chains.

In relative terms, non-fuel-related emissions are tiny, but in absolute terms, they are still something that companies must address—primarily because those are the elements within their direct control. Moreover, once the aviation industry introduces true zero technologies, non-fuel-related factors will comprise a bigger share of total emissions, making this a good time for OEMs and suppliers to start decarbonizing their products. To address aviation’s non-fuel-related emissions, potential actions for the aerospace industry could include the following:

  1. Decarbonize their own operations. Aircraft manufacturers, suppliers and maintenance providers need to include their direct scope 1 and 2 emissions in their decarbonization efforts, such as by moving from to green electricity and making their processes more efficient. For example, they could insulate buildings. Aerospace players can also build ambitious strategies to offtake (and possibly co-develop) technologies to capture, store, and reduce carbon emissions, starting with their own operations.
  2. Secure access to low-carbon materials. Materials and their supply chain are an important emissions source and are part of the industry’s emissions as scope 3.1 (purchased goods and services) and scope 3.4 (upstream transportation). As other industries transition to net-zero emissions, the demand for low-carbon materials, such as green aluminum, will increase, and immature value chains for these products will likely lead to shortages and arbitrage. To avoid these issues, aerospace players should move fast and develop their supplier base to lock in low-carbon material sources.
  3. Expand decarbonization efforts along the supply chain. Supply-chain management can change to incorporate sustainability issues. For example, the procurement teams could quantify and document the carbon intensity of every part over its lifespan, with the goal of increasing the emissions transparency of delivered products at a comprehensive level. In addition, companies could help suppliers increase their own decarbonization capabilities, and then work with them to set and hit targets for overall aircraft programs. Aerospace OEMs were instrumental in helping the supply chain get lean by providing coaching and other support. They could use a similar approach for decarbonization. As in other aspects of supplier management, negotiation is critical; OEMs could establish criteria and be prepared to exert their leverage as buyers in order to spur change among suppliers.
  4. Build decarbonization into design. During the design stage, OEMs can opt for different products and materials. This might involve choosing specifications that reduce a product’s environmental impact or creating designs that enable better reuse or recycling at the end of life.
  5. Build capabilities at all levels. In operations, awareness around decarbonization can be further built—similar to what has been done for safety. Players can build organization-wide sustainability capabilities at every level, from CEOs to store clerks. Engineers need to understand the carbon impact of their engineering decisions, factory workers need to understand the impact of specific processes, and supply chain managers need to understand the impact of purchased goods and services and hope to optimize them. In short, decarbonization can factor into every decision—and that requires decision makers at all levels to understand the topic.

The aviation industry is ambitious about improving its environmental performance, and programs to reduce fuel-related emissions are underway. But decarbonization is a massive goal that the industry will only achieve if it also devotes attention to reducing non-fuel-related emissions in the lifecycle.

Axel Esqué is a partner in McKinsey’s Paris office; Stephan Lidel is a senior capabilities and insights analyst in the Munich office, where Franz Reuel is a consultant; Kritika Rastogi is a consultant in the New York office; and Robin Riedel is a partner in the San Francisco office.

1 This analysis does not include corporate overhead. The carbon emissions from those activities are very small compared to emissions from operations.
2 Greenhouse Gas Protocol, ghgprotocol.org

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