Today’s aviation industry finds itself in a paradoxical position. On the one hand, it is a force for good, connecting people, places, economies, and cultures. It also plays a key role in shipping goods around the world (including vaccines during the recent global pandemic) and delivering humanitarian aid where and when it is needed most.
On the other hand, aviation is a significant contributor to climate change, accounting for 2-3% of global carbon emissions, a share that could increase to more than 20% by 2050 if drastic changes aren’t made. Other, non-CO2 related effects of air travel (such as contrail cirrus caused by soot particles) make the total climate impact of the aviation sector as much as three times greater than that of carbon emissions alone.
The responsibility of industry leaders and stakeholders to deal with these challenges was a major theme at the World Aviation Festival held this year in Amsterdam, and three emerging realities were highlighted:
1. The message of urgency has landed
Sustainability has been in the crosshairs of stakeholders in the aviation industry for a number of years already. It appears, however, that ambition is being supplanted by real action, with more companies embracing climate-friendlier policies and activities that have concrete results.
In one such major move, EasyJet has decided to cancel its carbon offsetting program in favor of pursuing actual aviation emissions reductions. The airline plans to decrease CO2 emissions by 35% per passenger kilometer by 2035 and to reach net zero by 2050, focusing on technologies like sustainable aviation fuel, hydrogen power, and carbon capture while validating its methods within the Science-Based Targets initiative.
Likewise, significant steps toward climate goals have been taken by both KLM and Lufthansa this year, with KLM adding a percentage of sustainable aviation fuel to all flights leaving Amsterdam, and Lufthansa entering into new partnerships to use and promote sustainable fuels. On its Boeing 777F freighter fleet, Lufthansa has also incorporated AeroSHARK film – a biomimetic technology that reduces drag, saves fuel, and highlights the principle of innovation in action.
As yet another example, British Airways is on what it calls its “most important journey yet” with the BA Better World commitment, which includes investment and advocacy around the respectful use of resources, the development of sustainable aviation fuel, and waste reduction measures. Singapore Airlines, meanwhile, has adopted new SITA technology and the use of sustainable aviation fuel with the aim of reducing emissions by 15,000 tons annually.
2. Cooperation will define what is possible
Clearly, there are abundant opportunities to make aviation a more sustainable industry through technology, policy, and innovative thinking. From sustainable fuels to flight operations software, airlines have an ever-widening set of tools that they can leverage for emissions reductions.
The scale of transformation that the climate crisis demands, however, is far greater than what can be achieved by a handful of isolated companies. Given the vast complexity of aviation value chains, it would be impossible to overstate the importance of cooperation. For example, a switch to hydrogen-powered aircraft can only work alongside significant changes to infrastructure, affecting many members of an aviation supply chain. Likewise, scaling up the use of sustainable aviation fuel requires international collaboration to establish and regulate the standards around raw materials, production processes, and emissions reduction calculations.
These are things that cannot be accomplished by a single airline, legislative body, or technology provider. Instead, many organizations must work together. While this has always been true in aviation, our current climate challenges make it clear that there has never been a more important time for exploring new opportunities and establishing new partnerships.
3. Sustainable aviation fuel is a key player
2022 was a landmark year for sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), with a greater number of SAF offtake agreements announced (as well as a higher volume of fuel) than in the previous two years combined – and by far, the most of any year to date. According to ICAO*, upwards of 80 SAF offtake agreements are in place across more than three dozen airlines, amounting to a commitment of nearly 3.5 trillion liters of SAF.
SAF is a crucial piece of the climate action puzzle because it is capable of delivering immediate emissions reductions. While other solutions such as electrification and hydrogen power will also play a role in the long term, full-scale implementation remains years – if not decades – away. Neste MY Sustainable Aviation Fuel is an example of SAF that is commercially available today, and can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by up to 80%** over the fuel’s life cycle compared to using fossil jet fuel, while requiring no modifications to aircraft engines or fuel distribution infrastructure.
Flight plan for the future
Meaningful action now, ambitious collaborations across value chains, and urgent adoption of technologies like SAF – these are all fundamental necessities for decarbonizing the aviation industry. Furthermore, we need international alignment on methods of incentivizing and measuring emissions reductions.
If we are lucky, additional solutions will emerge to fill the gaps, but for now, we must make the most of the opportunities that are in front of us. Fortunately, the history of aviation features no shortage of incredible innovations and wide-scale transformations, and these can be a source of optimism that even now, the industry can count on blue skies still ahead.
* The International Civil Aviation Organization is a UN agency that supports diplomacy and cooperation in air transport across 193 countries.
** When used in neat form (i.e. unblended) and calculated with established life cycle assessment (LCA) methodologies, such as CORSIA methodology.