The inaugural meeting of the International Aviation Climate Ambition Coalition at COP26 in Glasgow and net zero global emissions targets announced by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the Airport Council International (ACI) signaled a shift change for the aviation industry.
While fossil fuel free aviation is inevitably still a long way off, there is now a clear momentum with more and more airlines, airports, aircraft manufacturers, fuel producers and regulators committing to a transition away from fossil fuels, with a net zero carbon emissions target by 2050.
Sustainable aviation fuels, innovative technologies, and strong regulation will be key elements in helping the industry achieve this transition – with that, developments such as new aircraft concepts and engines are in the making, but these innovations will not answer the need to cut emissions fast.
Sustainable aviation fuel in the spotlight
The spotlight in the next five years is going to be on the increased use of Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), a drop-in solution which helps the aviation industry to reduce its carbon emissions straight away by up to 80%.
The immediate benefits of SAF are widely accepted, but the real challenge will be to meet this rising demand for SAF - something that Neste, the leading producer of sustainable aviation fuel, is well aware of.
Neste has been producing SAF since 2011 with a current production capacity of 100.000 tons per year. With ongoing investments in Neste’s Singapore and Rotterdam renewables refineries, the annual SAF production capacity will increase to 1.5 million tons by the end of 2023.
“We are increasing our global SAF production capacity 15 fold, ready to support aviation’s emission reduction goals across the globe,” says Thorsten Lange, Neste’s Executive Vice President for Renewable Aviation.
More producers entering the field
Alongside established producers such as Neste there is now also a surge of new players in the renewable fuel market as well as more and more airlines committing to using SAF.
An example being the IAG airlines which have been active in the use of SAF in their respective markets. British Airways last year operated the first transatlantic flight powered by 35% SAF.
Head of Sustainability at IAG Jonathon Counsell says that IAG has to date committed $865 million in SAF purchasing and investments. “We have five partners we are currently working with and are actively pursuing further opportunities to secure our own supply and invest in ways which can accelerate production.”
Regulation plays a big role
Addressing the need for strong regulation, Lange points out that mandates and legislation are an important part in driving forward the adoption of sustainable fuels by airlines. “Having said that, the situation is changing already. There are several airlines buying SAF either due to some mandate like in France, Norway and Sweden or where there is an incentivized scheme, for example on the west coast of the US or in the Netherlands.”
In line with this, clearer signals regarding SAF blending mandates are an important part of the road map to cut emissions. The European Union for example, foresees implementing a 2% SAF mandate in 2025 which will be implemented in the EU and will gradually ratchet up over the years - a real step in the right direction.
Counsell agrees that these policy moves are important to accelerate the investment in plants to enable the scaling up of SAF production. “However, mandates on their own will not be sufficient to attract this investment - in addition, we need a price stability mechanism as has been used to support other low carbon technologies.”
'Everybody needs to work together’
The pressure is set to increase on available raw materials with production ramping up and other refineries coming into the market – and that could impact on costs too. Lange believes that to keep prices stable or to get them further down, there needs to be more flexibility on the criteria for eligible feedstocks – certainly the feedstock raw material pool should be as broad as possible under the European Union’s Fit for 55 legislative package.
For example, innovative solutions such as municipal waste turned into fuel are promising technologies with a massive feedstock base, although production costs and investments are currently comparatively high. In the long term, Lange anticipates that with green hydrogen coming on stream that could help lower the cost to produce SAF.
Counsell believes the magic ingredient to help meet the growing demand for SAF and keep on track of emissions targets for aviation, is collaboration. IAG is working closely with industry partners to encourage a concerted effort from across all stakeholders to increase supply. “There is a clear opportunity here, but it requires us all to work together,” Counsell emphasizes.
There is no doubt that the industry is moving in the right direction – whether the speed and scale can be fast enough is what we will find out in the next five years.