Aviation’s determination to reduce carbon emissions through the use of sustainable aviation fuels must be matched by governments and oil companies

Aviation’s environmental efforts are noteworthy. Carbon emissions per passenger have declined more than 50% since 1990. Fuel efficiency improvements have averaged 2.3% per year since 2009. And from 2020, with the help of the Carbon Offsetting Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), the industry will begin to cap net emissions.

Industry achievements are being built from the ground up. Air France, British Airways, and JetBlue are among airlines that will offset carbon from domestic flights, the latter two having started their programs on 1 January 2020.

According to Michael Gill, IATA’s Director, Aviation Environment, these announcements are fully aligned with industry objectives. “We welcome the commitments to climate action being made by increasing numbers of airlines,” he says. “The industry goal to reduce global CO2 emissions to half of 2005 levels by 2050 will necessarily mean some airlines will go further and faster than others in cutting carbon.”

Etihad Airways, meanwhile, will halve its 2019 net emission levels by 2035. “The global focus on the environment and the urgency of reducing carbon emissions has never been greater,” says Tony Douglas, CEO of Etihad Aviation Group.

“Airlines have attracted significant scrutiny in the global discussion of the environment and our collective challenge as a fast-growing industry is to deliver meaningful initiatives, which can quickly help reduce carbon emissions.”

Etihad’s Greenliner program uses its Boeing 787 fleet to test sustainable products and practices. It also became the first airline to secure commercial funding conditional upon compliance with the United Nation’s (UN) Sustainable Development Goals. The €150 million will help to finance the development of a multistory eco-residence for cabin crew living in Abu Dhabi.

Bigger targets and bigger battles lay ahead. By 2050, the industry has pledged to halve emissions compared with 2005. And in 2022, ICAO will announce a government-backed, long-term environmental goal for aviation.

These will have to be achieved amid a difficult regulatory and political atmosphere. Aside from the ground swell for the flight shame movement, for example, the UK’s Committee on Climate Change has suggested oil companies and airlines should pay for a tree-planting drive to fight climate change to help the country achieve its 2050 net zero emission target.

The committee also commissioned a report by Imperial College London that suggested a frequent flyer levy or the elimination of frequent flyer programs (FFP) entirely. The questionable logic is that frequent flyer programs cause people to take more flights than necessary to accrue FFP miles.

Discussion on… CORSIA

The Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) will ensure carbon-neutral growth on international flights. It is estimated it will reduce emissions by about 2.5 billion tonnes and, by 2035, it will raise around $40 billion in climate finance.

Airlines asked for its implementation and will pay the bill. As of 1 January 2019, all carriers have reported their CO2 emissions though only flights between volunteering countries are subject to offsetting requirements in the initial stages of the scheme. Even so, more than 80 countries are signed up to this voluntary phase.

From 2027, all international flights will be subject to offsetting requirements. There are exemptions, such as flights to and from Least Developed Countries and Small Island Developing States but all can participate on a voluntary basis.

Despite this ground-breaking global agreement that ICAO Member States signed up to at the 39th Assembly, unilateral rules for monitoring and reporting emissions and so-called green taxes still abound. The European Union and China are examples of the former and there are proposals from the likes of the Netherlands and Sweden for the latter.

Policy incentives

The quest for sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) is particularly affected by governments’ lack of strategic direction on the matter. Forward purchase agreements for SAF amount to approximately $6 billion but this is a mere drop in an ocean of demand.

Insufficient policy incentives are a major contributor to shortfalls in SAF production. Governments successfully plotted the development of solar and wind solutions for power generation, for example, but SAF solutions for aviation do not enjoy the same progressive framework.

Enough sustainable fuels are produced to power about 10% of aviation’s needs but most are destined for road transport despite the fact that the electrification of road vehicles is tried, tested, scalable. Aviation has no near-term electrification option, underlining the need to make SAF a policy priority.

There are some bright spots. The European Union agreed to apply an enhanced incentive for aviation compared with ground transport under its Renewable Energy Directive II, starting this year and in California the Low Carbon Fuel Standard combined with the Renewable Fuel Standard could get SAF down to a competitive price.

Alaska Airlines and Washington State Governor, Jay Inslee, are meanwhile supporting the introduction of a Low Carbon Fuel Standard in Washington State.

“The legislation that Governor Inslee proposes would be expected to make the Pacific Northwest more attractive for, and a production location of, SAF fuels,” Patrick Gruber, CEO of Sustainable aviation fuel producer Gevo, notes.

Traditional energy suppliers must also prioritize investment in SAF. “The major oil companies have the expertise, the distribution networks and—importantly—the financial power to make a real difference,” says Alexander de Juniac, IATA’s Director General and CEO. “I call on them to make this an absolute priority, helping to underpin global connectivity for future generations by making sustainable aviation fuels a commercial reality.”

Discussion on… Taxes don’t work

IATA’s Director General and CEO, Alexandre de Juniac, believes taxes are a politician's way out of the intense environmental debate.

“They are easy to put in place and make it look like action is being taken,” he says. “It requires more time and more effort to put in place a package of measures that can actually reduce emissions in the long-term. But if designed correctly, they will advance sustainability much more than a blunt tax ever could.”

A proposed Environmental Preservation Fee to be paid by all passengers departing from Sao Paulo’s André Franco Montoro International Airport in Brazil is a case in point.

IATA analysis consistently shows that punitive taxes on passengers is inefficient and does not help reduce carbon emissions or mitigate other environmental impacts. In Brazil’s case, it would undoubtedly dampen aviation’s well-documented social and economic benefits.

Effective policies that are based on best practices for environmental management and compatible with the policies agreed by Brazil and other countries through ICAO are a far better way forward.

“Taxing people who fly will make travel more expensive and do little to reduce the environmental impact,” says Peter Cerdá, IATA’s Regional Vice President for the Americas. “This solution is purely political and does not take into account its negative impact on the economy.”

Carbon tax proposals are also under discussion in Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. France introduced a carbon tax this year, putting €1.50 on outgoing economy class tickets and €18 on business tickets. But taxes simply limit aviation’s ability to invest in long-term solutions to make flying sustainable.

IAG’s Chief Financial Officer, Steve Gunning, noted at a conference that the UK’s air passenger duty was originally described as an environmental fee. But the €800 million a year paid by IAG alone goes into opaque government coffers.

He said taxation is a result of aviation not being able to dissuade politicians’ concerns, but, in any case, taxes would not solve environmental issues.

SAF on the up

There is much to commend SAF to prospective investors. There are five technical pathways to SAF certification and a 60-80% reduction in CO2 is being achieved. A sixth certification pathway is on the cards.

Since they were first certified as ready for use in commercial operations in 2009, over 220,000 flights have taken off using some blend of low carbon fuel. It has saved some 150,000 tonnes of CO2, equivalent to 25,000 cars being taken off the road.

Five global airports are regular suppliers. At Brisbane, Australia, for example, SAF has been introduced into the hydrant system, using the isobutanol to jet fuel pathway produced by Gevo.

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), meanwhile, last summer welcomed what it claimed was the most eco-friendly commercial flight in aviation history. The United service from Chicago used SAF; produced zero cabin waste; had its carbon footprint offset; and used all-electric ramp equipment.

United has committed to buying 10 million gallons of SAF at LAX and has pledged a 50% reduction in its carbon footprint by 2050.

Spotlight on… SAF aspirational goal

SAF, as it stands, represents around 0.01% of global fuel uptake. It is more expensive than normal Jet A1 and its scarcity means the price is unlikely to achieve parity any time soon.

But the positivity surrounding SAF has led to a realistic aspirational goal of deriving 2% of global jet fuel from non-fossil sources as early as 2025. The percentage is significant in that it could be a tipping point for the production and cost of SAF.

The 14 SAF production facilities currently operating, under construction or in the final stages of financing and planning take the industry toward the 2% goal. They should contribute in the region of 3.5 billion liters of SAF annually. Among them is a Singapore facility owned by Neste, that will expand its renewable product capacity by up to 1.3 million tons by 2022. New announcements of SAF production have become a regular, if not yet common, occurrence. Even so, Michael Gill, Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group has noted that “we need to double that production stream and then double it again to make a noticeable impact on our carbon footprint.”

Promoting sustainability

Indeed, airlines are heavily involved in countless projects to further SAF integration into fuel supply. Etihad is partnering in the development of SAF refined from saltwater-tolerant plants and is also committed to support SAF developed from municipal waste in Abu Dhabi.

British Airways is investing $400 million in the development and uptake of SAF as part of its Flightpath Net Zero, which aims for net zero emissions by 2050. Last year, the airline launched a Future of Fuels competition for UK universities, awarding winners a £25,000 grant to further their research. Parent company, International Airlines Group (IAG) estimates that SAF will comprise up to 30% of UK aviation fuel delivering a 30% reduction in CO2 emissions.

In the meantime, IATA will continue to promote sustainability developments at ICAO. It believes that if all options to increase SAF production are explored up to 1 billion passengers will have flown on a SAF-blend flight by 2025.

The association also represents the industry in two leading sustainability organizations: the Round Table on Sustainable Biomaterials and International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC).

Spotlight on… Waste

Waste management is a vital, if less public, aspect of environmental responsibility.

Airlines have embarked on a number of innovative schemes—even turning waste into SAF in the case of British Airways and Japan Airlines—but restrictive laws hamper their progress.

Biodiversity concerns are often at the heart of recycling issues meaning a lot of waste, even unopened food, is burnt or sent to deep landfill.

For the same reasons, the substitution of plastic utensils with alternative materials does not improve their recycling rate. Alternatives might also be heavier, for example, creating additional fuel burn and emissions.

Changes to international laws and regulations are needed to help airlines deal with their onboard waste. IATA is working to establish best practice procedures. 

Spotlight on… Noise

The noise footprint of new aircraft is at least 15% smaller than that of the aircraft they replace. Nevertheless, the industry is making every effort to reduce the noise impact of aviation even further.

New air traffic services such as performance-based navigation that deliver precision approaches are among the many other initiatives bringing down the decibel level.

The 2001 ICAO Balanced Approach still guides industry work in this area. It promotes reduction at source, land-use management and planning, noise abatement operational procedures, and, as a last resort, operating restrictions.

Essentially, the most suitable measure or combination of measures to combat a noise problem will be specific to each airport and a thorough evaluation is therefore vital.

IATA Environmental Assessment

The IATA Environmental Assessment (IEnvA) improves airlines’ environmental performance through the implementation of best practice and compliance with domestic and international standards and obligations.

As of end December 2019, 17 airlines have achieved IEnvA Stage 1 or Stage 2 certification, with 10 more preparing for Stage 1 assessment.


Image credit | Getty | iStock