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Dubai — UAE's Etihad Airways, the first airline in the Middle East to announce net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, is exploring the potential use of synthetic fuel -- hydrogen mixed with carbon -- on future flights and is working on boosting its offsets program, an official told S&P Global Platts.

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Etihad is working with Siemens Energy, Abu Dhabi-based clean energy firm Masdar, and Japan's Marubeni Corp. to explore the production of synthetic fuel as part of a wider strategy to use sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) on future flights, said Mariam al-Qubaisi, the head of sustainability & business excellence, in a written interview.

"In an effort to explore other sources of SAF feedstock in the UAE, Etihad is embarking upon a project with Masdar, Marubeni, Siemens Energy and a number of industrial partners to explore the potential of producing synthetic kerosene from green hydrogen," Qubaisi said.

"We really hope that it will be one of the many options we can use for de-carbonization."

Major polluter

The UAE, which counts the aviation industry as a bulwark of its economy, is jumping on the energy transition bandwagon as part of efforts to rebrand its image in a world more conscious about the country's carbon footprint. The country's passenger air transport industry emitted 21.1 million mt of CO2 in 2018, making it the sixth biggest polluter globally, according to data from the International Civil Aviation Organization.

Etihad has committed to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a 50% reduction in net emissions by 2035, and a 20% reduction in emissions intensity in its passenger fleet by 2025. In October 2020, it sold a $600 million Islamic bond linked to its carbon reduction targets.

Abu Dhabi-based Etihad is among the first airlines in the Middle East to use SAF on its flights.

In January 2019, Etihad flew a Boeing 787 using a blend of conventional jet fuel and SAF, derived from oil in Salicornia plants, which were grown on a two-hectare farm in clean-energy Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. State-owned Abu Dhabi National Oil Co., the UAE's biggest energy producer, was involved in the refining process of the oil.

Three-fold strategy

"Our de-carbonization strategy is three-fold: operational efficiencies, SAFs and offsets," Qubaisi said. "Operational efficiency is captured in our new, fuel-efficient fleet and ever-developing operation standards to decrease fuel burn and therefore emissions. SAFs look into diversifying cleaner aviation fuel, be it in the form of a biofuel or synthetic kerosene. Etihad is also keen to develop the region's potential for the production of SAF."

Etihad believes government financial support is needed to reduce the cost of SAF, which can be four times more expensive than conventional jet fuel.

"Our industry needs the financial support of governments to make SAF a realistic alternative to jet fuel," Qubaisi said. "There are still insufficient quantities available, and limited supply points worldwide. Sustainability is an industry issue -- our experience with the Greenliner signature aircraft delivery with 30% SAF blend, was 2.5x more expensive than 100% jet kerosene."

Greenliner aircraft

The Greenliner program is the umbrella under which all Etihad sustainability initiatives sit. The airline has a specially branded "Greenliner" 787-10 aircraft for this program, and the 787 aircraft type is the backbone of its operations and makes up the majority of its fleet.

Etihad has committed to have at least four ecoFlights per year, where such a flight consumes 15% less fuel than a regular one.

Etihad also wants to work on its carbon offsets program, which started off last year with 80,000 mt and was expanded this year with at least an extra 10,000 mt, and is expected to grow further as the year progresses. The expanded program is being supported by Shell and Etihad is exploring adding other providers of offsets, Qubaisi said.

The expanded offsets program will help neutralize the CO2 emissions of its Greenliner 787-10 aircraft for 2021.

"With operations still severely impacted by Covid and far fewer aircraft flying than in 2019, 2020's emissions fell well short of the 2019 baseline," Qubaisi added.