Decarbonising aviation
June 09 2021 10:56 PM
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Alex Macheras
Alex Macheras

By Alex Macheras

The global aviation industry produces around 2% of all human-induced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. In 2019, 4.5bn passengers were carried by the world’s airlines. Aviation is responsible for 12% of CO2 emissions from all transport’s sources, compared to 74% from road transport. The worst of the pandemic may be over for airlines, but the industry faces another looming crisis: an accounting over its contribution to climate change.
One of the most effective ways in which we could fly more sustainably is by building an expectation of our airlines. In the heart of a ‘climate crisis,’ we need to expect our airlines to be using the sustainable solutions available today – such as sustainable alternative fuels.
Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) consists of three key elements:
Sustainability in this context is defined as something that can be continually and repeatedly resourced in a manner consistent with economic, social and environmental aims, specifically something that conserves an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources and does not contribute to climate change.
It is alternative, in this case, non-conventional or advanced fuels, and includes any materials or substances that can be used as fuels, other than conventional, fossil-sources (such as oil, coal, and natural gas). It is also processed to jet fuel in an alternative manner. From cooking oil, plant oils, waste, waste gases, and agricultural residues.
Fuel means jet fuel that meets the technical and certification requirements for use in commercial aircraft. It’s essentially fuel for aircraft that has the potential to generate lower carbon emissions than conventional kerosene on a life-cycle basis.
SAF is made by blending conventional kerosene (fossil-based) with renewable hydrocarbon. They are certified as “Jet-A1” fuel and can be used without any technical modifications to aircraft – meaning airlines do not need to make any modifications to aircraft – it’s simply an alternative fuel that’s better for the well-being of our planet.
The global energy company, Shell Aviation is committed to working to accelerate the uptake in sustainable alternative fuels. Shell’s partnership with SkyNRG (Dutch sustainable aviation fuel supplier) has led to deals for the supply of sustainable aviation fuel to international airlines including KLM, SAS and Finnair at San Francisco Airport, for example.
Setting an example, Shell Aviation became the first major fuel supplier to support San Francisco Airport in its ambition to expand the use of sustainable aviation fuel in its operations.
Hong Kong carrier Cathay Pacific has also recently committed to cut carbon emissions to net zero by 2050, by focusing on investing in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), carbon emission offsets and reducing emissions through enhanced efficiency. Cathay Pacific’s chief executive Augustus Tang called for increased efforts to tackle the “imminent global risk” and what is “potentially a much more disruptive crisis” than the Covid-19 pandemic. The group outlined its climate commitments in its Sustainable Development Report 2020 report, which it released in a 18 May filing on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
“While the aviation industry contributed less than 3% of the world’s man-made CO2 emissions prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, Cathay Pacific embraces its responsibility to lead the charge towards sustainable aviation and ensure future generations can experience the joy of travel,” Tang says.
Cathay Pacific wants to increase its use of SAF, aiming to buy 1.1mn tonnes over 10 years to meet about 2% of overall fuel needs from 2023 onwards. The group has also set a target to cut ground emissions by 32% from the 2018 baseline before 2030 by minimising engine use on the ground and bringing on board a new fuel-efficient fleet.
Nearly 88mn jobs were supported worldwide in aviation and related tourism before Covid-19 hit the industry. Of this, 11.3mn people worked directly in the aviation industry.
Carbon offset programmes play an important role. For Cathay, trough its carbon offset programme, the airline has offset more than 300,000t of carbon dioxide emitted from its flights to date. The programme enables Cathay Pacific passengers to buy offsets based on the carbon dioxide emitted from their flight.
Worldwide, flights produced 915mn tonnes of CO2 in 2019. Globally, humans produced over 43bn tonnes of CO2.
“Our net-zero pledge aligns with the requirements laid out in the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the Paris Agreement, and provides the focus we need in aligning our strategy – from fleet planning and carbon offsetting to further investment in sustainable aviation fuel and the development of new technologies,” adds Tang.
Nearly a quarter of the operating costs of an airline is spent on fuel: 23.7% in 2019, which is up from 13% in 2001. The proportion is likely to rise further as fuel prices go up. So this alone is a major incentive for the whole industry to focus on fuel efficiency.
Each additional layer helps – since 2000, the retrofitting of winglet devices on aircraft has meant 80mn tonnes of CO2 has been avoided.
Scott Kirby, the chief executive of United Airlines, speaks often about the need to address climate change, but even he acknowledges that it will be difficult for the industry to clean up its act. He wants United and other airlines to try different things and see what works.
“It is the biggest long-term issue that our generation faces. It is the biggest risk to the globe,” Mr Kirby said in a recent interview. “There are plenty of things we can compete on, but we all ought to be trying to make a difference on climate change.”
One day in the future, hydrogen fuel cells and synthetic jet fuel could help to decarbonise the aviation industry, and projects have already begun, mainly in Europe, where Airbus says it plans to build a zero-emission aircraft by 2035. Over in the US, Boeing has put its emphasis on developing more fuel-efficient planes and is committed to ensuring that all of its commercial planes can fly exclusively on “sustainable” jet fuel made from waste, plants and other organic matter.

* The author is an aviation analyst. Twitter handle: @AlexInAir 



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