Carbon-Free Air Travel Could Take Flight by 2050

Carbon-Free Air Travel Could Take Flight by 2050

Last week, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), the UN sponsored organization of countries with aviation industries, convened its annual assembly to discuss top issues affecting the industry. At the top of the agenda was debate over formally setting a target of zero-net emissions by 2050 for air travel. Their discussion comes as experts predict that demand for aviation fuel could soon top its pre-pandemic level of 300 million tons per year. In the meeting, Willie Walsh, the director general of the International Air Transport Association (IATA), stressed:

We need governments to support the industry’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 with their own commitment and corresponding policy measures on decarbonization. The right decisions by governments can accelerate the recovery from COVID-19 and strengthen the foundations for aviation’s decarbonization.

The airline industry contributes an estimated 2.4% of global carbon emissions, and has caused a faster and more dramatic increase in individual emissions than any other sector as consumer demand has increased, despite improving its efficiency over the past six decades.

PBS: Greener skies | How sustainable aviation fuel could help stem airplane emissions, April 20, 2021.

The Economist: Can flying go green?, February 10, 2021.

Now This: Company Works on Creating Hydrogen-Powered Planes, August 5, 2021.

Why This Matters

In an effort to decarbonize the aviation industry, countries like the US and Canada are investing in sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) that could potentially reduce the GHG emissions by a minimum of 50% compared to conventional fuel. Similarly, airline companies such as United Airlines and Easyjet have invested in SAF by purchasing fleets of electric and hydrogen-powered jet engines. United Airlines has set a net zero target that excludes relying on carbon offsets. For Easyjet, the investment is part of the company’s “roadmap to net zero” climate plan, which will also rely on carbon recapture technology to reduce emissions.

Neste: Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) | What it is, what it's made from and its many benefits, July 12, 2022.

IATAtv: The Growing Use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels, June 14, 2022.

IATAtv: Hard Talk at Sustainable Aviation Fuel Symposium 2021 | Scott Kirby CEO United, November 4, 2021.

GE Aerospace: GE Aviation fuels expert explains importance of Sustainable Aviation Fuel, April 20, 2021.

Pioneering SAF

Between more frequent and intense storms that ground planes and rising temperatures that  weigh down aircrafts, climate change has already impacted the viability of the aviation industry. Just over the past 30 years, rising temperatures in Greece have decreased the maximum take-off weight by 8,800 pounds. Sustainable aviation fuels may be the innovation the industry needs to maximize service, lower costs, and most importantly, decarbonize.

Unfortunately, less than 1% of jet fuel is currently SAF, nowhere near enough to meet demand. However, widespread investment in conversion technologies by governments and airlines alike could exponentially ramp up production. The Biden administration has since signed tax credits and a $290 million SAF grant program into legislation to meet the goal of supplying 3 billion gallons of SAF per year by 2030. The legislation also strives to meet 100% of aviation fuel demand (35 billion gallons annually) with SAF by 2050.

KING 5: Pacific Northwest a leader in sustainable aviation fuel, August 5, 2022.

Proactive: Gevo CEO says sustainable aviation fuel supply agreement with Delta is world's largest contract, March 29, 2022.

Carbon Engineering Ltd: Producing Sustainable Aviation Fuel From Air | Carbon Engineering, October 6, 2021.

Bloomberg: Why Hydrogen-Powered Planes Might Be Inevitable, March 16, 2022.

WW0: Interview | Scott Kirby, CEO of United Airlines, September 23, 2021.