Aerospace tech company to issue contrail reduction ‘credits’

3 min read


UK-based aerospace software startup ZEROAVIA announced today that sustainability certification body Gold Standard has approved its methodology concept to issue what could be referred to as “contrail credits.” 

Rather than offsetting carbon emissions directly (like carbon credits), they will offer an avenue for airlines to “make up” for the warming effects equivalent to that of carbon dioxide, by mitigating the non-CO2 climate impact of air travel. 

Everyone knows that aeroplanes emit copious amounts of CO2 (whether that causes any changes to our flying habits is another matter). However, aviation’s climate impact goes far beyond carbon dioxide. 

Research has found that contrails, short for condensation trails, could be responsible for close to 60% of aviation’s contribution to global warming. This is because they trap heat that would otherwise release out into space, through positive radiative forcing. 

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Mitigating contrails would significantly lower an airline operator’s climate impact. Unfortunately, there has been little direct incentive to do so. Contrail mitigation, as opposed to emissions reduction in the form of fuel efficiency, is not immediately linked to financial benefits. 

Bring on the data and contrail computation 

Persistent contrails only form with specific conditions of altitude, temperature, and levels of humidity. SATAVIA, based in Cambridge, UK, applies data analytics and atmospheric science to help airlines reduce the formation of contrails. The company has developed its tech platform, DECISIONX, in conjunction with UK Research & Innovation and the European Space Agency (ESA). 

The startup’s prediction model generates around 1 quadrillion (1,000 trillion) computations per simulation day, to help with route planning for contrail avoidance. SATAVIA has partnerships in place with KLM, KLM Cityhopper, Emirates, and Etihad Airways. 

“As a software solution incorporating the excellent and decades-mature atmospheric science available to us, contrail management provides the airline sector with an immediate and tangible option to reduce the climate impact of flying,” said Dr Adam Durant, SATAVIA’s CEO. 

The Gold Standard of carbon offsetting

One of the main criticisms (and there are many) of carbon offsetting as a practice is that the voluntary carbon market has lacked sufficient verification and regulation. This is where Gold Standard, founded in 2003 by the WWF and other environmental NGOs, comes in. 

It makes sure that offsetting projects deliver greater development benefits beyond emissions mitigation, and that there are no other issues such as biodiversity loss, stemming from offsetting projects. (Of course, not everyone uses GS certified projects to “offset,” and yes, the €2 add-on to your airline ticket most likely contributes to much cheaper credits.) 

Essentially, the Gold Standard stamp of approval of the methodology concept paves the way for SATAVIA to issue non-CO2 “Certified Mitigation Outcome Units (CMOUs).” Airlines can then use them as offset credits for the CO2 effect equivalent. 

Offsetting CO2  will soon become mandatory for international air operators under CORSIA (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation). SATAVIA says it hopes to achieve full GS Approved Methodology status by late 2023, which would position CMOUs as incentives for aircraft operators to undertake contrail management. 

“With the incentive provided by Gold Standard CMOUs, aviation could reduce its non-CO2 impact by perhaps 50% before 2030,” Dr Durant continued. “All we need is a willingness to adopt this approach, which importantly doesn’t require any changes to regulation and could be deployed at scale today.”

Furthermore, SATAVIA says this methodology could be the first step to creating an entirely new market for short-lived climate forcer (SLCF) mitigation. In parallel with SATAVIA developing the full methodology, Gold Standard will also develop registry functionality to allow CMOU trading, similar to the trading of carbon credits.


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