While there will be no substitutes for aviation, the Covid pandemic will change the way we do business and the aviation sector will need to rapidly adapt in order to meet the growing calls for a sustainable flying future, ICAO’s Secretary General Dr Fang Liu told a virtual session at the World Economic Forum’s Davos 2021. She encouraged all stakeholders to participate in the process of developing a long-term aspirational goal that ICAO member states are due to consider at their next Assembly in 2022. UK Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said his government wanted to use COP26, to be held later this year in Glasgow, to accelerate the transition to a cleaner aviation sector and revealed plans to make sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) available at UK airports during the climate summit. Industry representatives Grazia Vittadini, CTO of Airbus, and Dick Benschop, CEO of Schiphol Group, highlighted the importance of coordinated government policies to drive investment in new aircraft technologies and sustainable fuel production and take-up. The World Economic Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow initiative, which aims to support the transition to SAF as the most promising short-term option to reduce aviation’s carbon emissions, recently released a report that examined feedstock availability and sustainability, production capacity, technology maturity and expected costs of the most promising SAF production pathways.
Dr Liu said the UN agency could play a central role in bringing states, manufacturers, airlines, airports and stakeholders together in the post-Covid transition towards a decarbonised future.
“A global policy under ICAO is crucial because this is the only way to ensure the success of this global transition that needs to take place, while leaving no country behind and avoiding distortion of competition,” she told the session, ‘Building a Path to Net-Zero Aviation’, moderated by LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren.
“The disruptions to the way of life of billions around the world will bring fundamental and widespread changes to who aviation serves, and how, once the pandemic is behind us. The aviation sector will need to rapidly adapt, to access green funding for investments in technology, operations and fuels, in order to meet the growing calls for a sustainable flying future.”
She said individuals too will play an increasingly important role in sustainability, choosing to fly with airlines and on aircraft with lower emissions.
Added the UK government’s Grant Shapps: “Absolutely fundamental to our ‘build back better’ plan is to decarbonise aviation, making planes cleaner and greener so the sector can grow in a sustainable and resilient way. It’s a process that started well before coronavirus but I consider it to be more important than ever that as we come out of it, we pursue it even more actively. Our single overriding goal is to make net-zero a possibility in aviation and to do so well before 2050.”
He said governments working alone could not tackle the issue and close collaboration with industry and also at a global level was needed, pointing to the setting up in the UK of the Jet Zero Council and the UK working through ICAO to set global net-zero, long-term goals and standards for aviation emissions.
“We want to use COP26 to help accelerate the transition to cleaner aviation,” he said. “We’re going to be working with the World Economic Forum (WEF) and other states to develop new policy tools that will help the deployment of SAF. For the summit itself, we’re seeking to arrange the provision of SAF for delegates’ flights at key UK airports and we’re going to encourage other countries across the world to do the same.
“The world is coming together around this policy discussion but only the power of government as a convener can bring it altogether and ‘grease the wheels’ to accelerate the process.”
Grazia Vittadini of Airbus said multilateralism and cross-industry unity was the common denominator in stimulating a sustainable and long-term recovery of the sector. “We clearly have the right level of ambition and science-driven targets,” she said. “Now we need to progress on the regulatory framework of policy support as well as robust and safe technology pathways to get us there.”
Schiphol’s Dick Benschop said that up until now there had been a scatter-gun approach to aviation sustainability policy that had been ineffective.
“We need to focus on three areas: carbon pricing schemes that encourage the right incentives, tackling the issue of SAF mandates and how to support R&D into new propulsion areas such as electric and hydrogen. Ticket taxes aren’t helpful as they add cost but don’t drive sustainability. Sustainability will have its costs but enormous benefits as well and we need policies that drive investments.”
He said there was cause for optimism, with policies taking shape in Europe such as the ReFuelEU Aviation initiative that he expected will introduce a SAF blending mandate. “This would be an enormous step forward,” he believes.
Other positive developments he saw included a coming together by the sector towards a commitment to net-zero aviation in 2050 in line with the Paris Agreement and the big oil companies making serious investment decisions on sustainable fuels.
Vittadini saw similar signs of optimism and said it was a false choice as to whether the aviation sector should first focus on recovering profitability post-Covid or remain committed to net-zero.
“At Airbus, we have accelerated our carbon-neutral ambition into a tangible plan to bring a zero-emission aircraft to market by 2035, which is the most direct contribution we can bring as a manufacturer,” she said.
“The pandemic has increased global understanding of how dependent we are on our environment. It’s become quite clear that any industry recovery and profit in the years to come will depend on ambitious climate protection plans in parallel.
“Another key implication for the industry, especially in Europe, is finding a balanced way forward for alternative fuel propulsion solutions and I see three priorities.”
First, she said, was the need to boost production and uptake of SAF through dedicated policy measures. “More specifically, I believe this policy should include prioritisation of sustainable fuels for aviation, investing in high-impact feedstock and conversion technologies, and cost-effective financing. SAF provides a short and long term solution to decarbonising the sector, while technology in parallel continues to evolve to achieve even more fuel-efficient aircraft than today.”
Another step would be to implement a “green stimulus” for airlines to enable them to retire old and less environmentally-friendly aircraft, she said.
“Replacing a single aircraft can save more than 4,500 tonnes of CO2 per year, with the saving rising to 37,000 tonnes if you consider long-range aircraft. Creating the right conditions, the right financing framework to allow airlines to modernise their fleet towards more fuel-efficient aircraft is a win-win and would help support the European green agenda.
“Lastly, we need to catalyse an industry collaboration like we have never seen before in recent history, joining forces with all stakeholders across the industry, the political arena and research institutions. It’s important to note that as with every new technology and innovation rollout, the global transition to zero-emission flight requires a total rethink of many elements of our intricate aviation ecosystem.
“Hydrogen will need a technical redesign of current aircraft. Engineers will need to take the technologies developed in automotive and space to bring the weight and the cost down, and making the technology safe and compatible with commercial aircraft operations. We’re going to need to mobilise changes to airport infrastructure and we’ve started working with several airports, including Schiphol, on the concept of an airport hydrogen hub. Of course, we’re going to need the cooperation of aviation authorities to certify future hydrogen-powered aircraft to airworthiness safety standards, not to mention government collaboration as a critical piece of the puzzle. We do welcome the R&D funding support we are receiving from the EU and countries including France, Germany, Spain and the UK.”
Established in 2019, the Clean Skies for Tomorrow (CST) coalition brings together around 80 aviation and fuel industry companies and other stakeholders, including international organisations and associations, think tanks, NGOs and academia, to facilitate the transition to net-zero flying by mid-century.
In their foreword to the ‘Sustainable Aviation Fuels as a Pathway to Net-Zero Aviation’ report, Christoph Wolff, Head, Shaping the Future of Mobility, at WEF and Daniel Riefer, Platform Fellow WEF and Associate Partner at McKinsey, said that with electric flight and hydrogen-powered propulsion still years away from application at scale, SAF is a necessary step in aviation’s decarbonisation pathway.
“The CST coalition is working to address the chicken-and-egg scenario whereby producers and consumers of SAF are both either unwilling or unable to carry the initial cost burden of investing in new technologies to reach a scale where they are more cost competitive with existing fossil fuel-derived options,” they write. “The aim is to break this impasse and advance the commercial scale of viable production of sustainable low-carbon aviation fuels (bio and synthetic) for broad adoption in the industry by 2030. This report, developed in close consultation with the CST coalition, serves to provide a fact base on which swift and bold actions should be taken by public and private sector leaders alike.”
In 2019, says the report, fewer than 200,000 tonnes of SAF were produced globally, amounting to less than 0.1% of the roughly 300 million tonnes of jet fuel used by commercial airlines. If all SAF projects that have been publicly announced are completed, capacity will scale to at least 4 million tonnes in the next few years, reaching volumes just over 1% of expected global jet fuel demand in 2030. However, it says, a transition to SAF is in reach and from a feedstock perspective, enough raw material is available to fuel all aviation by 2030.
To scale production and make SAF economically viable and scale production, the authors say several advances will be required: technological challenges must be overcome; a supportive regulatory framework needs to be installed to stimulate demand from corporate and private customers; and innovative solutions to finance the transition have to be implemented. “The CST coalition is debating how to meet these challenges and help aviation earn its right to keep growing,” says the report.
It concludes: “Producing sustainable aviation fuel will almost certainly continue to be more expensive than refining fossil jet fuel but the costs of exceeding the 1.5 or 2.0-degree targets of the Paris Agreement are incalculably greater.”
Top photo and video: World Economic Forum