The global aviation industry has set a climate target of cutting emissions to 50% of 2005 levels by 2050.
Air transport accounts for about 2% of global man-made CO2 emissions. In 2017, civil aviation, as a whole, emitted around 859mn tonnes of CO2, which is roughly 2% of man-made carbon emissions.
It is estimated that (under the industry’s trend setting initiative CORSIA or Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation — a global carbon offsetting scheme) aviation will have to offset 2.6bn tonnes of CO2 between 2021 and 2035.
Therefore, the aviation industry has pinned its hopes on sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), which it believes will help reduce airlines’ global emissions and industrial carbon footprint.
It is proven that SAF can cut CO2 lifecycle emissions up to 80% compared with conventional jet fuel. It uses sustainable fuel sources, which do not compete with food or water, or damage biodiversity.
Sustainable aviation fuels are currently certified by regulators for up to 50% use in commercial flights.
Over 250,000 flights have already taken off with a blend of Sustainable Aviation Fuels, IATA noted.
US university researchers are now looking at whether “waste products from craft brewing” can power low emissions flight, IATA said in a recent report. Scientists have just published research on carbon negative aviation fuel, and Shell is investing in LanzaJet to scale up production of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
All three announcements came within days of each other, adding to the steady drumbeat of news about SAF. Since the start of the year rarely a week passes without new reports of research into low emission fuels or deals to boost production.
It is the most important weapon in the industry’s quest to meet its target. Although hydrogen-powered electric flight and battery-powered flight potentially delivers zero emissions, scaling up these technologies could still take decades, according to aviation expert Andrew Stevens.
SAF has been around since 2008. More than 300,000 flights have used it blended with regular aviation — without the need for any modification of engines or aircraft — and production continues to grow.
The amount of SAF used by commercial aircraft rose 65% between 2019 and 2020, despite the devastating financial impact of Covid-19 on airlines. In 2021, it is expected to jump another 70%, according to Robert Boyd, IATA assistant director of Aviation Environment and head of SAF.
Although the uptake rate looks impressive it is still a drop in the ocean. SAF accounts for less than 0.1% of total jet fuel.
“Production has increased steadily in recent years despite it being two to four times more expensive than jet fuel,” says Boyd. “We still have a long way to go but the momentum is moving in the right direction to reach critical production mass, and when that happens it will be a game-changing moment for airlines.”
Boyd estimates that on the current trajectory, SAF production could hit 2% of the total fuel demand by 2025. At that level, the price gap between SAF and regular kerosene would be starting to close.
“There is no substitute to liquid fuel on long haul flights on the horizon yet so SAF will be critical in the industry reaching its emissions targets,” notes Boyd.
Experts affirm post-Covid-19 “green recovery” must embrace Sustainable Aviation Fuels (SAF) in line with the aviation industry’s commitment to its emissions reduction goals.
Current SAF production is 50mn litres annually, according to an IATA estimate.
To reach a tipping point, where the scale of production will see SAF costs drop to levels competitive with jet fuel, the production needs to reach 7bn litres or 2% of 2019 consumption, the global trade body of airlines say.
Obviously, the current production rates of Sustainable Aviation Fuels are too low for aviation to reach its goal despite SAF’s proven potential and airline efforts to date.
The world must “build back better” from the Covid-19 crisis with attention focused on investment in carbon reduction technologies and in SAF, which according to the International Air Transport Association, will create jobs at this critical time and boost aviation’s progress towards its goal to cut aviation emissions to half 2005 levels by 2050.
Pratap John is Business Editor at Gulf Times. Twitter handle: @PratapJohn