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Fly more, pollute less: The great aviation conundrum

The aviation sector is facing a great dilemma: How can it fulfil its ambition of doubling passenger numbers while meeting its goal of reducing its massive greenhouse gas emissions?

Slashing pollution from the industry is among the major challenges facing the world as leaders meet later this month for a key climate summit in Britain.

How bad is it?
Airlines transported 4.5 billion passengers in 2019, belching out in the process 900 million tonnes of CO2, equivalent to two percent of total global emissions.

Passenger numbers are projected to double by 2050, meaning a parallel doubling of CO2 if no action is taken.

While the sector has sought to increase carbon efficiency, it has increasingly faced pressure from environmentalists and social movements such as “Flygskam” (“flight shame“), which appeared in Sweden in 2018.

Between 2009 and 2019, carriers improved their energy efficiency by 21.4 percent, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA). But that was not enough to prevent the sector’s emissions from rising.

What are the pledges?
The IATA committed itself earlier this month to zero net emissions of CO2 by 2050, after having previously targeted a cut of just 50 percent.

A group representing European airlines, airports and aerospace companies has made a similar commitment.

At state level, the European Union hopes to cut emissions by 55 percent compared with 1990 levels by 2030, aviation included.

The United States intends to slash the sector’s emissions share by a fifth by the end of this decade.

What’s the flight plan?
The European group of airlines, airports and aerospace companies hopes half the emissions targets can be met with more fuel-efficient engines, the emergence of hydrogen and electric propulsion, and a better management of air traffic.

But the IATA says such measures would contribute to just 14 percent of the effort.

Plans to reach the net zero target also rely on carbon offsetting schemes, such as planting trees, which NGOs say do not address the problem.

Role of sustainable fuel
“If there’s a ‘silver bullet’ to decarbonising aviation, it’s sustainable aviation fuels (SAF),” says Brian Moran, Boeing’s vice-president of sustainability public policy.

The IATA hopes to accomplish two-thirds of its emissions reductions by using SAFs — non-conventional fuels derived from organic products including cooking oil and algae.

The European Commission will require that SAFs account for at least two percent of aviation kerosene by 2025, rising to five percent by 2030 and 63 percent by 2050.

Aviation giants Boeing and Airbus say their planes will be burning 100 percent SAFs by the end of this decade.

SAFs, which is four times more expensive than kerosene, accounted for less than 0.1 percent of the fuel used in aviation in 2019.

The United States is proposing a tax credit to encourage SAF use while the EU wants to put a new levy on kerosene for flights within the 27-nation bloc.

Is it doable?
Biomass fuels are a limited resource.

“We have estimated that by 2050, advanced biofuel from residue (will) allow for covering (just) 11 percent of aviation’s needs,” says Jo Dardenne of the European NGO federation Transport et Environnement (T&E).

The aviation sector is also betting on synthetic fuels, or e-fuels, made with hydrogen produced from renewable sources of energy and with CO2 captured from the atmosphere.

E-fuels are supposed to be the main type of SAF in the future.

But Timur Gul, head of energy technology policy at the International Energy Agency, says replacing just 10 percent of oil-based jet fuel with e-fuels would require the equivalent of electricity production from Spain and France combined.

Dardenne says the technologies being considered to reduce emissions require a lot of energy. What is needed, he says, is to “reduce demand” — meaning to fly less.

IATA boss blames governments for prolonging travel crisis

The head of global airline industry body IATA blames overly risk-averse governments for prolonging the COVID-19 crisis for the travel sector but expects the outlook to brighten in the second half of the year.

IATA Director General Willie Walsh, the former boss of British Airways owner IAG, expects positive data on vaccine effectiveness to convince governments to start rolling back restrictions.

“There is some good evidence there to be optimistic that, going into the second half of this year, we will see a better environment that will allow more people to travel,” he told Reuters on Friday.

Most international air travel remains depressed almost 18 months into the pandemic because of continuing restrictions.

Walsh, who took the top job at IATA in April, said that governments are being too risk-averse and need to change rules to reflect data showing that vaccinated travel or travel with testing poses little risk to a country’s infection rate.

“The crisis in the airline industry, which was initially caused by a health pandemic, is now really a crisis caused by restrictions being imposed by government,” Walsh said.

He singled out Britain in particular, citing rules that require people entering the UK from nearly all countries to take at least two coronavirus tests and enter quarantine. Walsh also hit out at what he said was “incredible farcical confusion” created by mixed political messages on travel.

Many countries on Britain’s “amber list” for medium-risk travel have very, very low transmission rates, said Walsh.

“If I was vaccinated, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly to these countries,” he said of places such as the United States, Spain, France and Italy, which were top destinations for Britons before the pandemic.

Britain and the United States both have high vaccination levels, which Walsh said gives him confidence that a travel corridor could be opened between the countries in June.

“I think there’s a good reason to be optimistic that we should be able to see the UK and U.S. open transatlantic flying again,” he said.

Zero net emissions by 2050: A huge challenge for airline industry

How can passengers take 10 billion flights a year without contributing to global warming? The question of “greening” the international aviation sector by 2050 constitutes a colossal task whose stakes — and sheer numbers — can make the head spin, according to the airlines themselves.

At its general assembly in Boston Monday, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) said it is now aiming for “net zero carbon emissions” by the middle of the century, a bold but necessary goal in the face of global warming, according to its CEO Willie Walsh.

But by signing up to the goals of the Paris climate accord, and those of the European Union, IATA, which represents the airlines, does not envisage that a massive reduction in emissions will also involve a massive reduction in its operations. Quite the opposite.

“For us the main target is to continue growing, because it’s not the traffic that is the enemy, it’s the emissions,” said Sebastian Mikosz, IATA vice president in charge of environmental affairs and sustainable development.

Even though air transport has suffered a huge downturn due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with a drop from 4.5 billion travelers in 2019 to 1.8 billion in 2020, IATA estimates that by 2050 more than 10 billion trips per year will be made by plane.

As it stands, the aviation sector produces 900 million tons of CO2 per year, according to IATA. By 2050, if nothing is done to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint, that will rise to 1.8 billion tons.

That would mean that over 30 years, 21.2 billion tons of CO2 would be released into the atmosphere. Reducing this level to gradually achieve net zero emissions in 2050 poses an enormous technological challenge that the IATA estimates will cost companies around $1.55 trillion between 2020 and 2050.

– 10,000% increase in production – IATA says that the main solution lies in the use of sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), which would allow the industry to get 65 percent of the way toward its goal.

These fuels — made from biomass, waste oils and could even be made from carbon capture in the future — have the advantage that they can be used directly in existing aircraft, which are designed to run on 50-percent blends of kerosene. And such fuel sources can reduce CO2 emissions by 80 percent compared to kerosene over their entire life cycle, according to IATA.

Airbus and Boeing have pledged that their fleets will be able to fly 100 percent on SAF by 2030, but SAF accounts for less than 0.1 percent of aviation fuel currently used.

Encouraged by governments, the infrastructure to produce SAFs is being set up in the United States and Europe, but is still embryonic — and the cheapest fuel that comes out costs four times more than kerosene, a fossil fuel.

“The problem is the capacity and the supply,” said Mikosz, who said the goal was “basically to grow to 450 billion liters of SAF compared to 100 million liters.”

“We need to multiply our supply by 10,000 percent,” he said.

Still, IATA believes that the technological advances promised by the aerospace industry, in particular new electric or hydrogen planes such as those that Airbus is preparing for 2035, are not yet a sure enough bet for the sector to rely on in order to “decarbonize” beyond 13 percent by 2050.

“If those technologies do not deliver what we need by 2050… we can compensate it through SAF,” said Mikosz.

The European aviation sector, in publishing its own roadmap towards carbon neutrality for 2050 last February, said it was counting on technological advances to cut 37 percent of its emissions by 2050 and on SAF to cut 34 percent.

IATA’s strategy, like that of the European aviation sector, also relies on a system of carbon capture and emissions trading to start the transition, amounting to 19 percent of the total reduction.

But environmental NGOs have criticized the use of carbon capture and offsetting mechanisms, asking that they be used only after all other mitigation options have been implemented.