Last week was, generally speaking, a pretty strong showing for emissions concerns in the aviation world. IATA, the industry’s largest global trade group, passed a resolution targeting net zero emissions across their operations by 2050.
While some optimism is certainly warranted, it must be tempered by the reality of significant financial and technical roadblocks looming large over the industry.
SAFs and Beyond: IATA’s Emissions Hurdles
As part of its push to Net Zero emissions by 2050 IATA expects some 65% of the global aviation fuel supply to come from sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs). In 2021 the industry consumed approximately 100 million liters of SAF. By 2050 IATA anticipates that number hitting 449 billion. Even just by 2025 the target of 8 billion – 80x growth in 4 years – would be an astounding accomplishment.
And, ultimately, getting there, as with many things in life, is all about the money.
Production facilities continue to come online, but airlines face a long and potentially expensive road to realize their SAF goal. Indeed, much of their hopes depend on government subsidies for SAF production to bring the cost down closer to normal jet fuels.
Throughout its Annual General Meeting event, multiple IATA executives explicitly cited the blender credit proposed in the massive spending bill currently floundering in the US Congress as an indication of how such support could be delivered. With uncertainty over it being included in the ongoing negotiations, however, using it as a keystone for the platform is risky.
The industry hopes early subsidizing of fuel costs helps to bridge airlines’ cost challenges in the short term. With fuel already about a third of costs for an airline any increase is painful. As suppliers scale up production – with costs offset by governments – the hope is to eventually see costs low enough that they can match (or beat) traditional fuels without the assistance. It generally worked for wind and solar. But the feed supply for those technologies comes with much different economics.
Even if the SAFs subsidies come online, questions remain around which feed stocks and conversion pathways truly reduce emissions. United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby explicitly called out corn, soybeans, and palm oil as bio-sources that simply shift the emissions rather than eliminating them. Neither other airlines nor IATA as a whole are making similar statements. Should those truly count as sustainable options for the industry?
Kirby’s comments on SAFs – and in opposition to planting trees as a legitimate offset strategy – run counter to one of the company’s other major announcements of late, unfortunately. The theoretical order of Boom Supersonic jets will drive a massive increase in consumption per seat-mile flown. Simply claiming that the company can fuel those aircraft with only 100% SAFs falls well short of addressing the overall increase in consumption that puts the broader goals at risk.
There are other ways to trim emissions – albeit not as dramatically – that should be easier to implement. Improved aircraft routing and air traffic management should help, for example. IATA anticipates this represents just 3% of the total savings through 2050, but also believes it is some of the easiest to accomplish.
Delivering more efficient routings in Europe, for example, should be relatively trivial. But it also depends on national governments more closely coordinating – and in some cases ceding full authority over – traffic movements. Lack of progress over the past couple decades does not, however, mean it is a lost hope.
A recent trial of direct routings across the Atlantic provides some hope, though authorities are not yet ready to fully switch.
In the USA a shift to more more direct aircraft routings could also reduce emissions and does not require on inter-governmental cooperation. It does, however, require deployment of new navigation technologies. The NEXTGEN solution is massively delayed and over budget. Getting all airlines on board proved challenging in the past. Hopefully the tides have shifted on that front, but someone still has to pay to upgrade hardware on many of the aircraft.
Alternate propulsion technologies
The organization also expects ~13% of the reduced fuel burn to come from new technologies. This covers development of electric or hydrogen-powered aircraft. And the number is tiny.
It is necessarily limited, according to IATA, because of expectations that the newer propulsion technologies will not truly exist in the commercial aviation ecosystem until the mid-2030s. And even when they do, the planes will be smaller and flying shorter routes. Larger aircraft and long-range service will not benefit from those advances.
And while IATA CEO Willie Walsh lashed out at aircraft manufacturers for delivering only incremental improvements where the industry demands massive, structural adjustments, many question if even the incremental changes can be delivered quickly enough.
The impact of the new propulsion technologies is also limited because planes being delivered through the end of this decade will rely on existing engines and fly to 2050 and beyond. A huge portion of the emissions decisions for the coming decades were made 10-20 years ago.
Even as airlines press manufacturers for lower emissions solutions, the need to keep costs down and also to deliver a massive step-change in technology limits the available options. And decisions over the past decade – driven by airline demands around delivery timelines, aircraft pricing, and transition costs – led to the incremental improvements of the NEO/MAX era rather than the transition society truly needs.
None of the proposed changes alone are enough to get there. Even together they might not be.
But it is high time to finally try. At least there’s now something of a target for the industry to aim for. And metrics to be measured against.
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