To help the world meet global climate goals by 2050, the aviation industry must play its part, reducing its environmental impact by half.

Casey Crownhart

Reducing carbon emissions from aircraft will be difficult, but not impossible, according to a new report. With sufficient funds, political support and alternative fuel, the aviation sector can make enough progress to help the world meet global climate goals by 2050.

Today, this industry accounts for around 3 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Some airlines and industry groups have pledged to achieve net zero emissions by 2050, but these plans often don’t include details on how to get there. The new report, released by the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT), a nonprofit research group, outlines possible pathways to reduce aviation industry emissions enough to do its part in keeping global warming to less than 2 ° C compared to pre-industrial levels, as established by the Paris Agreement.

Achieving this will require swift action within the aviation sector and significant political support for technologies such as alternative fuels that do not currently exist on an industrial scale. Aviation is a notoriously difficult sector to decarbonise. Strict operational and safety requirements limit the technology that can be used. The equipment has a long lifespan, so an aircraft built today will continue to fly in 2050. This means that technological progress must occur rapidly to affect emissions in the decades to come.

“If you want to decarbonise the aviation industry, you have to start now,” says Lynnette Dray, a researcher at University College London. Keeping emissions low enough to stay below 2 ° C of warming would mean reducing annual emissions from the aviation sector in 2050 to around half of currently projected levels.a difficult task for a sector that is expected to grow rapidly in the coming decades.

To achieve this, its emissions are expected to peak and begin declining by 2030, says Brandon Graver, one of the report’s authors and aviation expert at the ICCT. And if we want to further limit warming to 1.75 ° C, emissions will have to start decreasing as early as 2025. In the ICCT analysis, around 60 percent of emissions reductions are projected to come from low-carbon fuels.

But new fuels still have a long way to go to achieve this kind of impact. The supply of alternative jet fuel accounts for about 0.05 percent of the total fuel supply in 2020. Judging by the 2018 figures, a full year’s supply of non-fossil fuel would fuel the global aviation sector for about 10 minutes.

To keep up with demand in 2050, even in the most conservative estimate, the supply of alternative fuels is expected to grow approximately 3,000 times compared to 2020 levels.. The small amount of commercial alternative fuel produced today largely comes from waste lubricants, oils and greases. But the supply of these waste oils is limited, so additional fuels will have to come from other sources.

Other biofuels will play a role as well, but their actual impact on reducing emissions can vary widely depending on their source, says Prayeen Bains, an aviation expert with the International Energy Agency. And even biomass sources such as agricultural waste will be too limited to power global flight.

Like others, the aviation industry relies on technologies such as synthetic kerosene as an alternative fuel. At least half of the alternative fuel supply in the ICCT projections comes from this technology, where electricity is used to convert carbon dioxide into fuel that planes can burn. While much of the machining is done industrially, the community of technologists is asking serious questions about the technology and its future cost.

To offset the rest of the emissions cuts needed to stay below 2 ° C by 2050, airlines will need to improve both technical efficiency (for example, how much fuel an airplane burns per mile) and operational efficiency ( the entire air travel chain). And demand will likely have to slow down, both because people travel less and because they switch to other modes of transport, such as high-speed trains.



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