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Aviation in struggle to reach net zero targets

aviation offset sustainable aviation fuel Reuters/Rula Rouhana
A man inspects an Emirates Boeing 777 being filled with sustainable aviation fuel during a milestone demo flight in Dubai earlier this year
  • Aviation counts for 2% of global CO2 emissions
  • ‘Not on track’ to reach 2050 net zero target
  • Sustainable aviation fuel on rise

Gulf commercial airlines have committed to achieving net zero emissions by 2050 by switching to sustainable aviation fuels, adopting new technologies and buying carbon offsets, among other measures.

But they face challenges in doing so.

The aviation industry hopes measures such as these will enable it to realise two seemingly conflicting ambitions: doubling the volume of air travel by 2040, as forecast by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), while slashing carbon emissions in what, like steelmaking, is a hard-to-abate industry.

Experts told AGBI it will be difficult for airlines to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions significantly and still operate as before.

Aviation accounts for 2 percent of global energy-related CO2 emissions, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

The industry’s emissions were 800 metric tonnes last year, 20 percent below a pre-pandemic peak, the IEA estimates, describing aviation as “not on track” to achieve its 2050 net zero target.

In 2021, IATA’s 310 airline members, which include the largest Gulf carriers Emirates, Etihad Airways and Qatar Airways, each committed to achieving net zero emissions from their operations by 2050.

SAF explained

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) – renewable or waste-derived aviation fuels – are expected to contribute 65 percent of emissions reductions by 2050, IATA forecasts.

New technologies such as hydrogen or battery-powered planes are to contribute 13 percent, operational improvements 3 percent, and carbon offsets and carbon capture 19 percent. 

SAF can be blended with jet fuel and used in standard aeroplane engines. Synthetic fuel, or e-fuel, is the most promising type, according to experts. This is made from green hydrogen and CO2 captured from the air via renewable electricity.

SAF currently accounts for 0.1 percent of aviation fuel consumption and will increase to 1-2 percent of the total by 2027, the IEA estimates.

Yet costs remain commercially prohibitive. E-fuel could fall to €1.30-2.20 ($1.36-2.30) per litre by 2030, according to non-profit Transport & Environment. As of November 9, jet fuel was priced at about $0.55 a litre.

In April, European Union policymakers provisionally agreed to new aviation fuel rules.

From 2025, at least 2 percent of aviation fuels consumed in flights arriving or departing from the bloc must be “green”. This will increase to 6 percent in 2030 and steadily upwards until reaching a minimum 70 percent in 2050.

Transportation, Truck, VehicleReuters/Rula Rouhana
A fuel truck fills up the Emirates Airlines Boeing 777-300ER with Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)

Shell Aviation signed an agreement with Emirates on October 2 to supply the carrier with blended SAF, which is 40 percent SAF and 60 percent conventional jet fuel.

The first commercial flight using this fuel was Emirates’ Dubai to Sydney on October 24.

Last month, Abu Dhabi’s Adnoc received International Sustainability Carbon Certification to produce SAF at its Ruwais refinery. Adnoc can now supply blended SAF to international airlines flying to and from Abu Dhabi, although it has not specified the blending ratio.

Offsetting plans

Carbon offsets, where companies buy credits from environmental projects to purportedly cancel out an equivalent amount of their emissions, are also part of airlines’ decarbonisation plans.

Yet under the terms of Corsia (Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation) – a voluntary scheme to which 125 nations are signatories – only emissions exceeding 85 percent of a 2019 baseline need be offset.

This means only aviation growth is addressed under the policy, “severely undermining the scheme’s ambition”, says Roman Mauroschat, aviation policy officer at Transport & Environment.

The organisation calculates that Corsia would apply to only 22 percent of international aviation emissions by 2030.

SAF could reduce aviation’s emissions by 38.6 percent, Transport & Environment estimates, while market-based measures such as the EU emission trading scheme could reduce them by 17.5 percent. The remaining 8.4 percent could be eliminated by shifting to electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft.

However, there will never be sufficient supplies of green hydrogen to meet demand from an expanding aviation industry, says Thomas Gelin, Greenpeace’s political campaigner for transport.

“That’s not something airlines want to hear or say, because it’s something that goes against their business model,” he says.

Transportation, Truck, VehicleCreative Commons/Ubahnverleih
Transport & Environment estimates that SAF could reduce aviation’s emissions by 38.6 percent
Fewer flights?

Ultimately, some commentators believe the only way to adequately reduce emissions is to cut flights.

According to Greenpeace, European airlines must reduce their air traffic by 2 percent annually from 2022 to 2040 to keep within the 1.5C global warming limit mandated by the Paris Agreement of 2015. Non-European carriers should make similar reductions.

“Air traffic is increasing,” says Greenpeace’s Gelin. “It’s an inconvenient truth that the aviation industry doesn’t want to hear.

“Even accounting for technological advances, you always end up with the same outcome: one way or another, you need to reduce air traffic.”

The IEA tacitly acknowledges as much, stating that “demand restraint solutions” will be necessary to achieve net zero by the middle of the century.

Transport & Environment recommends capping business travel at 50 percent of 2019 levels and limiting leisure travel to the same level as 2019, which would cut emissions by 35.5 percent.

The aviation industry estimates the cost of achieving net zero at €820 billion ($860 billion).

“But is this a sign they’re once again trying to find excuses to delay and externalise the problem?” asks Mauroschat. 

“The aviation sector can decarbonise but it will need to act much faster and will need to show the money.”

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