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Climate challenge to aviation sets huge expectations for sustainable fuels

Airlines rally new climate targets at IATA’s annual meeting, puts onus largely on sustainable fuel production to meet 2050 carbon neutrality goal.

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Release Date
October 5, 2021
Climate challenge to aviation sets huge expectations for sustainable fuels
In 2050, today’s 787s, A350s, A320neos and 737s Max will be in desert retirement. Their replacements will be in service, driven by future flying technologies that have to achieve an industry’s increasingly-bold long term environmental target to reduce CO2 emissions and its contribution to climate change and an ever-warming planet.

On Oct. 4, at its annual general meeting in Boston, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) significantly revised its collective industry environmental targets. By 2050, the group that represents 290 airlines, said it wants to be a net zero emitter of carbon. The previous target was to cut net emissions in 2050 in half based on a 2005 benchmark, when the industry globally emitted 605 million tons (.605 gigatons) of CO2 globally.

The 2050 goal is almost an ethereal concept given where aviation is today, but it’s a mere generation and a half of airframe and engine development from now. IATA’s core assumption, however, is that those engines will principally be gas turbines for medium and long-haul flying.

In numerical terms, according to IATA, the long-term industry trajectory means a required annual abatement of 1.8 gigatons of CO2 in 2050 and a cumulative 21.2 gigatons between 2021 and 2049. In 2019, the industry is estimated to have emitted 905 million metric tons of CO2 (.905 gigatons), according to the International Council on Clean Transportation, about 2.5% of the world’s total emissions that year. 

Related: Electric is the future of regional aviation, just not yet

Overall, by 2050 only 13% of the industry’s abatement is expected by IATA to come from aircraft with new hydrogen, electric and hybrid propulsion, while 65% of the carbon goals will come from the significantly reduced footprint that comes from Sustainable Aviation Fuels powering traditional, but improving, gas turbine engines. Industry and environmental advocates largely see SAF as the best option for significantly reducing emissions in the short term, with the lowest technology barriers to adoption. Aircraft today in the United States are permitted to fly with SAFs blended with up to 50% jet fuel.

IATA laid out a best case scenario for industry to meet this target, expanding SAF usage from 2% of the total fuel requirement in 2025 to 5.2% in 2030 in conjunction with full implementation of ATC improvements for more fuel efficient routings. By 2035, SAF usage increases to 17%, with electric and/or hydrogen aircraft becoming available for flights of up to 90 minutes with 50 to 100 passengers. In 2040, SAF climbs to 39% and hydrogen covers a significant portion of the operations with 100 to 150 seats for 45 to 120 minute flights. In the last decade, SAF is 54% in 2045 and 65% in 2050 as carbon neutrality is aspirationally reached.

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