The introduction of low-cost flights opened the door to millions of people who wanted to travel without having to spend too much time on the journey. A wide variety of destinations became available to different social strata, and at affordable prices. The only limit was airline capacity and, as we now know, the externalities costs of such extensive use of jet fuel causing significant Green House Gas emissions. According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), aviation is responsible for roughly 2.5% of global CO2 emissions.
The European Commission predicts that if no significant control measures are taken, demand for flying by the middle of the 21st century could increase aviation’s greenhouse gas emissions by more than 300% in relation to 2005 levels.
In recent times, the aviation industry adopted the goal of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. In October of this year, the UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) led two weeks of negotiations involving 184 nations to agree on CO2 emissions reduction measures, some of which include: the continued development of innovative aircraft technologies, “streamlining” flight operations and the increased production, and the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF).
It is essential for the industry to be backed by governments with a decarbonization goal.Laia Barbarà, WEF’s Industry Decarbonization Lead for Aviation
Sustainable Aviation Fuels can reduce emissions by 80% according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). SAF can be made from several sources ranging from agricultural waste to carbon captured from the air. SAF is fully compatible with existing aircraft and fueling infrastructure. High production costs and limited supply has slowed its adoption. It is estimated that SAF comprises less than 0.1% of all jet fuel currently used.
According to IATA’s estimates, SAF could make up around 65% of the emissions reduction needed by aviation to reach net-zero by 2050. “This will require a massive increase in production in order to meet demand. The largest acceleration is expected in the 2030s as policy support becomes global, SAF becomes competitive with fossil kerosene and credible offsets become scarcer,” IATA has noted.
IATA believes the aviation industry won’t be able to completely eliminate emissions at source, and will need to mitigate the rest using a variety of offsetting mechanisms. This is the process where emissions are compensated for by the financing of a reduction in emissions elsewhere.
“States’ adoption of this new long-term goal for decarbonized air transport, following the similar commitments from industry groups, will contribute importantly to the green innovation and implementation momentum which must be accelerated over the coming decades to ultimately achieve emissions-free powered flight,” Salvatore Sciacchitano, the President of the ICAO Council told the WEF.
ICAO adopted the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) in 2016, which has been heralded as the first global market-based measure for any sector. IATA says “CORSIA aims to stabilize international civil aviation net CO2 emissions at 2019 levels, from 2021, using offsetting programs,” IATA said. “We envisage that as new technology such as SAF becomes widespread, the need for offsets will diminish”.
With short-haul flights of fewer than 600 miles accounting for more than 17% of airline emissions, new technologies like electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft are also being developed. It’s been estimated that all flights of fewer than 2,500 miles, which make up more than half of all CO2 emissions from aviation, could be electrified or powered by hydrogen.
“As we move from commitment to action, it is essential for the industry to be backed by governments with a decarbonization goal,” said Laia Barbarà, the Industry Decarbonization Lead for Aviation at the WEF. “ICAO’s Long Term Aspirational Goal (LTAG) of net zero by mid-century is a great step forward in that direction. The World Economic Forum stands ready to support ICAO, governments and the private sector globally as they work on next steps.”
Airbus is developing three types of hydrogen-fueled zero-emission commercial aircraft which it says could enter service from 2035. They are: a turboprop plane carrying up to 100 passengers with a range of more than 1,000 nautical miles; a turbofan design (120-200 passengers) with a range of 2,000-plus nautical miles; and a “blended-wing body” design (up to 200 passengers) which could also fly over 2,000 nautical miles.
According to the WEF, for hydrogen to be a carbon-neutral aviation fuel, it has to be produced in a sustainable way. The ClimateWorks Foundation says “usage of green hydrogen (that is hydrogen produced using additional renewable energy) must be incentivized to achieve the deep decarbonization required from the aviation sector”.
Business and government leaders need to align on a meaningful pathway to accelerate aviation’s decarbonization for more companies to adopt SAF. The Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition is a global initiative to facilitate the transition to net-zero flying by 2050 – by accelerating the deployment of sustainable aviation fuel. Co-led by the WEF, the coalition of more than 100 companies is aiming to power global aviation with 10% SAF by 2030.