The World is Now Aligned on Net-Zero Aviation Emissions
On Friday, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) -- a specialized agency of the UN -- endorsed a global target of net-zero emissions from international aviation by 2050. That means we have 193 states now aligned on a mission to decarbonize air travel. This may be a non-binding aspirational goal, but it’s an essential step that will help set the stage for aggressive policy action in many countries around the world.
Aviation is the most difficult transportation mode to decarbonize because of its dependence on liquid fuels. Liquid jet fuels have some significant benefits over alternatives like battery power: they’re more energy dense, can deliver more power, and help a plane lighten its payload as fuel is burned off over time. Other emerging technologies like hydrogen power are more promising, especially for more carbon-intensive long-distance travel, and will likely play a role in decarbonizing aviation in the long term. Still, given that it can take a decade or longer to bring new aircraft designs to market and another two to three decades to phase out the existing aircraft fleet, we cannot afford to wait for these technologies to become viable.
For these reasons, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is the key to reducing aviation emissions in the near-to-medium-term. SAF is a drop-in jet fuel that can be used in today’s aircraft and is significantly cleaner than conventional petroleum-based jet fuel. How much cleaner SAF is depends on the type of feedstock used and the production process, but many of the most promising options -- including things like municipal solid waste, forestry residues, and various cover crops -- can lower emissions by anywhere from 50-80%.
Neste: Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) | What it is, what it's made from and its many benefits, July 12, 2022.
PBS: Greener skies | How sustainable aviation fuel could help stem airplane emissions, April 21, 2022.
Before we can realize these benefits, we must overcome low production volumes and high costs. There were less than 30 million gallons of SAF produced globally in 2021, accounting for well under 1% of all jet fuel demand. As a result, SAF is roughly 2 to 4 times more expensive than conventional jet fuel. These costs will come down as the industry achieves economies of scale, which will only be possible with robust levels of both public and private sector investment.
Luckily, policymakers in the US have recognized the benefits of these sustainable fuels and are taking steps to help the industry overcome these challenges. In August, Congress passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which included five years of tax credits to help lower the cost of SAF and $244 million in grant funding to support projects related to the production, transportation, blending, and storage of these fuels. The Biden Administration also recently released a roadmap that outlines how the US can scale production to reach three billion gallons annually by 2030 and 35 billion gallons by 2050.
The Economist: Can Flying Go Green?, February 10, 2021.
FT: Will zero emissions aviation ever take off? | Rethink Sustainability, April 22, 2021.
Bloomberg: Why Hydrogen-Powered Planes Might Be Inevitable, March 16, 2022.
To reach these goals, the US needs to leverage these actions to start making large-scale investments to expand feedstock production, increase the number of biorefineries capable of producing SAF, and continue RD&D to enhance the sustainability of SAF. As the largest biofuel producer and the second-largest producer of renewable energy in the world, American producers can lead the way in creating a more affordable and sustainable supply of SAF to keep the US on a path to net-zero aviation emissions by 2050.
On October 12, join Third Way for a virtual discussion with policy experts from the US Department of Transportation and private industry as we talk more about what lies ahead for sustainable aviation fuels and how policymakers can build upon recent legislation like the IRA to create a solid foundation for this growing industry.
IATAtv: The Growing Use of Sustainable Aviation Fuels, June 14, 2022.
KING 5: Pacific Northwest a leader in sustainable aviation fuel, August 5, 2022.
POLITICO: Flying sustainably: How will the EU scale up clean jet fuels by 2030?, November 9, 2021.
World War Zero: Making the Airline Industry Carbon Neutral feat. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, September 23, 2021.