Global aviation accounts for more than 1 gigaton of annual greenhouse gas emissions. As of now, we’re far off course to reach our target for decarbonizing aviation. Only 0.1 percent of jet fuel is currently sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). Our goal is to reach 20 percent by 2025 and 40 percent by 2040. Innovation can help us get there.
Let’s explore how industry leaders and countries around the world are working on powering our aircrafts with carbon-neutral fuels, allowing us to fly guilt-free in the decades ahead.
Scaling Sustainable Aviation Fuel:
SAFs are essential for decarbonizing long-distance flight. They can be either biofuels or synfuels produced from CO2 and hydrogen. Using SAFs reduces a flight’s CO2 emissions by up to 84 percent. Our task is to scale availability of sustainable fuels and thereby drive down prices—and production needs to be expanded to 300-400 plants by 2030. Generating more demand will help us get there.
(Source: Environmental and Energy Study Institute)
Although SAF is now two to five times more expensive than fossil jet fuel, industry collaboration to signal demand could narrow the gap. The Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance is working to develop a more transparent SAF certification system. This would enable more businesses to invest in SAF, reduce costs, and drive down aviation emissions overall. The First Movers Coalition has brought together nearly two dozen companies to commit to purchasing 5 percent of their jet fuel as SAF by 2030.
One limitation of existing SAFs is that they are not truly carbon-neutral, as they only partly offset emissions from their own combustion. To solve this problem, United Airlines has committed to reach net zero by 2050—without carbon offsets—by using SAFs and direct air capture, a form of engineered carbon removal. Meanwhile, Boeing has pledged to invest in enabling planes to transition to 100 percent SAF by 2030.
Electric or Hydrogen Flight Innovations:
Based on some estimates, flights of less than 2,500 miles—which account for more than half of all aviation emissions—could be electrified or powered by hydrogen-based fuel. As startups research hydrogen fuel cell applications for small planes, large manufacturers such as Airbus are investing in efforts to power aircrafts with direct hydrogen combustion. Once airports begin to integrate charging and refueling technologies, hydrogen could be adopted by a broad range of regional aircrafts.
(Source: Air Transportation Action Group)
This innovation works best for small flights. One country making headway here is Norway, which is working with regional airport operators to all-electric flights by 2040. Future flights of any size could be powered with a combination of hybrid systems using electricity and SAF.