Why air travel needs to work harder to decarbonise

Saywah Mahmood explores why more needs to be done, and faster, to decarbonise the aviation industry for environmental targets to be hit in time.

Despite steps taken to decarbonise the aviation sector, the International Energy Agency (IEA) has said the aviation industry is “not on track” to meet net-zero goals, in a report released last month

The Climate Action Tracker (CAT) rates the sector’s carbon-neutral growth goal as “critically insufficient”. 

COP26 took place in November, leading to governments and environmental organisations to put greater pressure on industries – especially the air travel industry – to decarbonise. 

In 2019, international aviation emitted more than 600 tonnes of carbon dioxide (MtCO2), data from the CAT reveals. This accounts for around 1.2% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

The Covid-19 crisis reduced emissions to 280 MtCO2 but emissions are forecasted to increase by up to 177% between 2015 and 2050.

Since other sectors will likely decarbonise faster, and growth in air travel is expected as Covid-19 becomes endemic, the international aviation sector’s share of global emissions is “expected to increase in the future”, according to the CAT.

For global warming to be contained at 1.5-2°C, the goal set at the Paris climate agreement, the IEA has forecast that emissions would need to be around the 470 MtCO2 mark per year by 2040. However, at the current rate, even at its lowest estimate the CAT forecasts emissions to be around 836 MtCO2 in 2040.

Only seven airlines, including United Airlines and Delta, have committed to net-zero targets by 2050 according to Science Based Targets, an initiative that enables companies to set science-based emissions reduction targets. Twelve airlines have committed to halving emissions by 2030.

Failure to meet international goals

Carbon neutral growth is when net CO2 emissions remain constant on a net basis compared to a given baseline.

In order to achieve a goal of carbon neutral growth from 2020, the International Civil Aviation Organisation has set up the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). The scheme will be implemented in three phases. The pilot phase (2021-2023) began this year. The two other phases are the first phase (2024-2026) and the second phase (2027-2035). 

For the pilot phase, the goal to achieve carbon-neutral growth has been changed to 2019 emissions levels instead of 2020 levels. This is because 2020 levels were deemed to be unattainable due to Covid-19 reducing air travel, and subsequently emissions, significantly. 

The scheme requires operators to purchase carbon offsets to cover emissions above their levels in 2019. It is yet to be decided if 2019 emissions will form the baseline for the first and second phases.

Despite the pilot and the first phase being entirely voluntary, the Air Transport Action Group reports that as of July 2021, 106 countries have volunteered, representing 77% of international aviation activity. However, large markets such as China and India will not be taking part in the voluntary phases. 

The scheme also does not include an objective of containing global warming to 1.5-2°C and, while using 2019 as the benchmark year makes the target more achievable, this selection also lacks a certain amount of ambition.

Increasing lower and zero carbon fuel usage is vital

A significant element of achieving decarbonisation is to shift a greater focus towards sustainable and cleaner fuels.

The main contender would be sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), such as biofuels and synfuels, which, the IEA reports, currently account for less than 0.1 %of jet fuel consumption. SAFs are a particularly attractive solution to help decarbonise the industry because they require limited infrastructure modification to aircraft and airports.

The Oneworld airline alliance, which includes British Airways and Qatar Airways, has set a collective target to have SAFs account for 10% of fuel volumes by 2030.

However, only last month the CEO of Qatar Airways, Akbar Al Baker, complained about the lack of supply of SAFs.

Existing and newly announced SAF plants could only provide half the amount of SAFs needed to meet the International Air Transport Association’s target of making SAFs contribute 2% of all fuel by 2025.

Lower production levels also mean SAFs still cost more than conventional fuels, making them a less attractive alternative.

It is also vital that emissions are cut across the supply chain, from production to consumption. SAFs could eliminate nearly all CO2 emissions from fuel combustion if they are produced using renewable energy, according to the IEA.

Hydrogen can also be useful for zero-carbon air travel

Hydrogen, either combusted in jet turbines or used in fuel cells, could also help to reduce aircraft emissions. Last year, Airbus revealed three concepts for the world’s first zero-emissions commercial aircraft, which could potentially enter service by 2035. These would be powered by hydrogen.

However, at current, 95% of hydrogen is produced by fossil fuels. So, while the flight itself would be carbon neutral, there would still be a dependency on fossil fuels.

Various industries need to work to rapidly develop low-carbon methods to produce hydrogen, such as electrolysis, but this also needs to be made low cost because currently, hydrogen cannot compete with traditional kerosene in terms of costs.

Clearly, there needs to be a greater incentivisation to take part in schemes such as CORSIA, and governments need to implement policies that support and scale up the consumption and production of cleaner fuels. Greater production would also help bring down costs.

The aviation industry took one of the biggest hits from the Covid-19 pandemic and many airlines received funding and bailouts. However, this needs to be more carefully considered.

An airline bailout tracker, developed by the European NGO Transport & Environment, revealed that around €37bn in government bailouts was awarded to European airlines since the beginning of the pandemic. The bailouts were given with nearly no binding conditions to improve emissions.

In a recent report relating to bailouts, Transport & Environment’s key recommendation was to make sure the airlines have a “decarbonisation plan as a necessary precondition for bailouts”.