The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a drastic reduction in air travel, leaving many airlines facing an uncertain future. It might be tempting to assume that once air travel resumes, it would be business as usual as the airline industry focuses on a return to profitability over commitments to achieve net-zero emissions . But as Grazia Vittadini, Chief Technology Officer at Airbus, recently stated, pursuing one at the expense of the other “is a false choice.”
At pre-pandemic levels, aviation was responsible for 2-3% of overall global emissions, and current forecasts from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) anticipate significant growth in air travel throughout the 2020s. In addition, as the world looks to build back better, a growing proportion of airline passengers will be millennials who are likely to book with sustainable brands with which their values align.
To drive a sustainable, long-term recovery in the aviation industry, facilitating the transition to net-zero flying by the middle of this century remains a priority across aviation’s value chain. Achieving net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 will not only help create an environmentally sustainable future but also ensure a financially resilient and competitive aviation industry as a whole.
How to achieve net-zero flying
The use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) – fuel either made from biogenic feedstocks such as waste cooking oil, agricultural residues and municipal waste, or through next generation SAF technologies such as power-to-liquid from recycled CO2 and carbon-capture technologies – will play an indispensable part in achieving this transition.
SAF is especially relevant for addressing carbon emissions from long-haul flights and has the distinct financial advantage of not requiring any major new equipment or infrastructure investment, since it can be blended with conventional jet fuel. Given the long lead time for new propulsion technologies like hydrogen and electric to come to market, SAF is a way to make substantial progress on net zero immediately, for both long and short haul aviation.
SAF that is currently commercially available can reduce GHG emissions by up to 80% on a life-cycle emissions basis as compared to fossil fuels, offering airlines a way to become greener while continuing to fly. The problem of wider adoption is two-fold: the cost and current limited supply of SAF. Today’s commercial production of SAF is only approximately 0.05% of total EU jet fuel consumption – and the current pace of growth is nowhere near what it should be to meet global climate objectives.
To help support the development and use of SAF, the World Economic Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow (CST) initiative created the Sustainable Aviation Fuel Certificate (SAFc) system to serve as an accounting tool that will allow SAF emissions reductions to be claimed by the traveler if they cover the higher cost of the fuel. In other words, corporations will be able to pay extra for sustainable aviation fuel certificates against their chosen routes, boosting demand for SAF and unlocking additional funding sources to stimulate this nascent industry. Instead of buying offsets, the SAFc framework provides customers with the option to invest directly into SAF and furthermore receive recognition for this purchase to prove Scope 3 carbon abatement for their corporations.
Commitments to net-zero emissions
International aviation and shipping are unique in that they were excluded from national carbon budgets under the Paris Agreement. Instead, Parties were requested to work through the international regulators to reduce emissions from these sectors. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, traction was slow with governments and industry alike in the will or commitment to a net-zero by 2050 target for the sector. That being said, the industry were already aligned around environmental targets, including to achieve carbon-neutral growth from 2020 and by 2050 to have halved carbon emissions from aviation against 2005 levels. In 2019 ambitious leaders in the sector joined the Clean Skies for Tomorrow Coalition as a crucial mechanism through which actors across the value chain could collaborate to advance efforts towards net-zero flying.
Being an industry with low profit margins to begin with, it is promising to see airlines emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic with the recognition of the false choice between longer-term profitability and sustainability. Over the last year we have witnessed this in the many commitments to net-zero that have come to pass.
In September 2020, oneworld – which includes American Airlines, British Airways and Cathay Pacific Airways – announced that all 13 of its member airlines have committed to net-zero emissions by 2050, becoming the first global airline alliance to unite behind a common target to achieve carbon neutrality. The airlines said they will develop individual approaches to reach the net-zero target by 2050, through a mix of various initiatives such as efficiency measures, investments in SAF and more fuel-efficient aircraft, reduction of waste and single-use plastics, and carbon offsets, among other measures.
This was followed in February by Europe’s aviation sector unveiling its flagship sustainability initiative Destination 2050 – which lays out a route to reduce CO2 emissions from all flights within and departing from the EU by 45% by 2030, reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. This document is backed by major European flight industry associations, covering airports (ACI EUROPE), airlines (A4E), aerospace and defense (ASD Europe), air traffic control (CANSO), and regional airlines (ERA).
In March 2021, Airlines for America, the industry trade organization representing the leading US airlines, announced the commitment of its member carriers to work across the aviation industry and with government leaders to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. In April, British Airways-owner International Airlines Group announced the first SAF commitment, to ensure SAF accounts for 10% of their fuel usage in 2030. They plan to achieve this by investing US$400 million into SAF development in the next 20 years and purchasing one million tons of sustainable fuel on an annual basis.
And just recently, Airports Council International (ACI) World and their five ACI regions adopted a long-term carbon goal for their member airports. ACI EUROPE not only reaffirmed the commitment of 235 airports to net zero by 2050 but also significantly raised ambitions with 91 airports run by 16 operators, being set to deliver on their net-zero commitment already by 2030.
On the consumer side, there are growing commitments from multinational corporations to fly on airlines using SAF. In October, Alaska Airlines and Microsoft signed a partnership agreement to reduce carbon emissions via flights powered by sustainable aviation fuel on key routes, while in February Deloitte struck agreements with Delta Air Lines and American Airlines to buy flights using SAF as part of its efforts to reduce emissions. Agreements like this enable corporations to help carry the extra cost of SAF to the airlines and the SAFc accounting framework is designed to facilitate, incentivize and standardize these transactions to ensure they are environmentally credible and result in additional sources of funding to rapidly accelerate SAF production and use.
One of the goals for COP26 is to rally the aviation fuel value chain behind a 10% SAF by 2030 ambition. Tools such as SAFc, coalitions of the willing and ambitious commitments from airlines themselves offer a promising way forward.
By Lauren Uppink, Head of Aviation, Travel and Tourism, World Economic Forum