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Aviation group sets out pathways to halve carbon emissions by 2050


Aviation sector embarking on ambitious energy transition

Group sees role for electric and hydrogen powered planes

450-500 million mt of sustainable aviation fuels needed

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  • Frank Watson
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London — The global aviation industry can slash its CO2 emissions in half by 2050 and reach net-zero emissions about a decade later, aviation industry group the Air Transport Action Group said Sept. 29.

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The plan will rely on a significant shift away from fossil fuels, the introduction of radical new technology and continued improvements in operations by the sector, it said.

"A decade ago the aviation industry become one of the first to commit to a long-term climate action plan," said ATAG's executive director Michael Gill.

"We are now able to provide detailed analysis of different pathways to achieve the goal of halving net aviation CO2 emissions by 2050 and, with the right support from governments and researchers, be on our way to net-zero emissions a decade or so later," he said in a statement.

The aviation industry lacks 'off-the-shelf' technology available to many other parts of the economy, making decarbonisation a major challenge for the sector, the group said.

Nevertheless, shifts in fuel technology are opening up viable pathways for the sector to cut its environmental impact, the group said in its "Waypoint 2050" analysis report.

Sustainable fuels

"The prospect of new technologies such as radical aircraft designs, electric and hydrogen powered aircraft is factored into the analysis and these are expected to be able to enter the fleet from around 2035-2040 for short-haul flights," the group said.

Operational improvements such as more efficient air traffic management and better use of existing aircraft play a fundamental early role and help reduce emissions further, it said.

"Most importantly, the nearly complete shift to sustainable aviation fuels – up to 450-500 million mt of this low-carbon energy source – will be required to meet the industry's climate goal," it said.

The ATAG called on governments to provide support over the next decade to enable the aviation sector to accelerate its energy transition – currently at an early stage -- and with the sector's emissions likely to resume a long-term growth trend following the COVID-19-induced global slowdown, which reduced air traffic by 94% at its peak.

"For sustainable aviation fuel in particular, we need support from governments in the next decade to help set the stage for the future of low carbon connectivity," said Gill.

"These new fuels are already flying today – over 270,000 commercial flights have taken off so far – but are still a tiny part of our overall fuel mix," he said.

Regulation needed

Governments can play a key role in helping to sustain a green recovery for aviation from the COVID-19 crisis and set a path towards net-zero emissions from air transport, according to the group.

"But the next 10 years will set the sustainable aviation agenda out to 2050 and beyond. This is a crucial period," said Gill.

The group's central traffic growth projection shows that by 2050, around 10 billion passengers will fly each year a distance of 20 trillion revenue passenger kilometres. Without any intervention in the fleet and operational efficiency, this activity would generate about 1.8 billion mt of CO2 and require over 570 million mt of fuel, it said.

That CO2 figure is roughly comparable to the annual CO2 emissions of all of Europe's power plants and emissions-intensive industrial facilities covered by the EU Emissions Trading System. For perspective, total global CO2 emissions from energy combustion stood at around 34 billion mt in 2019, according to S&P Global Platts Analytics data.

The ATAG's various emissions scenarios for 2050 show that sustainable aviation fuels and carbon offsets can together deliver 41-75% of the sector's 50% emissions reduction target by 2050.

Improved technology can deliver 15-42% of the target, while operations and infrastructure can deliver 8-12%, it said.

Part of the aviation sector's basket of measures to reduce its environmental impact is the UN International Civil Aviation Organization's Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA).

The CORSIA program requires airlines to offset any growth in CO2 emissions above a 2019 baseline, meaning airline operators will need to buy and retire carbon offset credits over time, to neutralise that expected emissions growth.

The ATAG's Waypoint 2050 analysis does not rely primarily on market-based measures such as offsets to pursue pathways to decarbonization.

"However, it is likely market-based measures will be needed in the long term to deal with any remaining CO2 emissions or as sustainable aviation fuels ramp up," it said.