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The Aviation Impact Accelerator (AIA) is building an interactive, open-source, whole system simulator that can map pathways and accelerate the journey to climate neutral aviation.

About the AIA

The AIA is an international group of academics and practitioners drawing on a broad range of expertise assembled by the University of Cambridge, to develop an interactive, evidence-based tool to engage decision makers and the wider public in a discussion on the pathways to net zero flight.

It was inspired by the work of the renowned Cambridge academic Professor Sir David MacKay. MacKay’s ground-breaking work on decarbonising the UK energy system remains the bedrock of the BEIS MacKay Carbon Calculator which allows the user to explore pathways to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. Similarly, the AIA seeks to combine the use of simple units and a user-friendly interface with the technical rigour required to meet the tight constraints of air travel.

The AIA’s modelling work seeks to capture the whole system, from the source of renewable electricity and raw materials to the production and transport of fuel, and the introduction of new aircraft technologies and operations. This will provide the user with the full picture, including the connections between different technologies, behaviours, business models, and policies, allowing scenarios to be played out, to understand what could work to accelerate the transition. Decision-makers will gain an understanding of the whole system, the potential for change and the trade-offs between decisions. As such, this simulator will guide innovation, investment, and policy action, as well as providing wider educational benefits to the public.

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The problem

Aviation is one of the most carbon intense forms of transport and particularly hard to decarbonise. Before the COVID-19 pandemic aviation was responsible for 2-3% of global annual CO2 emissions (~8% of UK emissions) and was one of the fastest-growing sectors in terms of CO2 emissions. In addition, the non-CO2 effects of flying are thought to have an even more significant effect on the climate, though the magnitude of the effect is less certain. Although severely disrupted by COVID-19 it is predicted that aviation demand will increase back to the 2019 levels by 2023/24 and continue to grow.

There is no silver bullet for achieving climate neutral aviation, the scale of the problem is immense, and time is limited. Three possible pathways include sustainable aviation fuels, zero carbon emission aircraft and battery electric aircraft. The former is extremely energy intensive, and the latter two require a complete technological and infrastructure shift. For all three, huge uncertainty remains around the energy, technology, investment, policy, and behavioural change required.

Transitioning to climate neutral aviation requires navigating both challenging technical change and a complex behavioural, economic and policy landscape. The AIA’s whole-system simulator is needed to examine the problem in the round. 

The team

Led by the Whittle Laboratory at the University of Cambridge and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) the AIA brings together a multidisciplinary team of experts from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering, Hopkinson Laboratory, BP Institute, Judge Business School, and Bennett Institute, together with the Air Transportation Systems Lab at University College London, and the Melbourne Energy Institute at the University of Melbourne. The project is in partnership with HRH The Prince of Wales’s Sustainable Markets Initiative, The World Economic Forum, Cambridge Zero,MathWorks, and SATAVIA, with the input of industry advisors including Rolls-Royce, Boeing, BP, Heathrow and Siemens Energy.

The AIA leadership team includes Professor Rob Miller(Director of the Whittle Laboratory), David Pitchforth (Former President of Boeing Defence, Space and Security Global Operations), Eliot Whittington (CISL Director of Policy; Director of The Prince of Wales’s Corporate Leaders Group), Tony Purnell (Head of Technical Development, British Cycling and Former Team Principle at Jaguar Formula 1), Professor John Dennis (Head of the School of Technology) and Dame Polly Courtice (Emeritus Director and Senior Ambassador of Cambridge Institute of Sustainability Leadership).


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