Sustainable fuels, emissions offsets, and renewable energy: the keys to decarbonizing aviation

08 of May of 2023

Would you like to offset your CO2 emissions for £5.99? The airline’s website asks as I am buying my latest flight to London. Without hesitation, I add it to the cart, happy with the extension of this practice to almost all the usual operators in Europe or, at least, to the ones I use. 

The decarbonization of the economy has become a priority for governments, businesses, and ordinary citizens, who form an ever-growing collective committed to the fight against climate change and to promoting sustainable practices at all levels. With the revision of the goals signed in the Paris Agreement eight years ago, actors from many industries are considering how to achieve such ambitious plans in time and form. 

A prioritized target 

Carbon emissions from the aviation sector in 2019 accounted for 2% of global emissions, a dark and irrefutable reality that both airport operators and airlines want to change: their number 1 goal. 

We face a complex but fundamental task for infrastructures and airlines big and small. Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airfield, achieved carbon neutrality by 2020, a remarkable milestone considering the tens of millions of passengers who take off and land at its terminals yearly. Meanwhile, its much smaller counterpart Roland Garros Airport, in the Galapagos, became the first to build a bioclimatic terminal in 2017, replacing air conditioning with the wind to cool island temperatures. 

Despite these exemplary efforts, there is still a long way to go before this gigantic industry involving manufacturers, airlines, operators, and passengers like you and me, can be considered, as a whole, green. And much of the change lies in how we power planes. 

Shared commitment

The solution, unfortunately, is not as straightforward. Besides transitioning to synthetic fuels and biofuels, investment in new aeronautical technologies based on electricity and hydrogen is essential for a definitive change. We need to focus on renewable energies. 

In October 2022, the 184 countries and 57 companies that make-up the International Civil Aviation Organization adopted the so-called Long-Term Aspirational Goal: zero net emissions by 2050. As we move from commitment to action, industry and governments are collaborating to drive change. 

SAF, CO2, H2

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) can be manufactured from many clean sources, from agricultural waste to carbon captured from the air. Its use is fully compatible with the current infrastructure, which is why it is surprising that it accounts for less than 0.1% of the fuel used by the industry today. High manufacturing costs are holding back its expansion. As with almost all technological advances, the outcome seems obvious: invest in its development to improve processes, maximize production, and make supply cheaper. As political support for SAF becomes more widespread globally, it will be able to compete (and win) against fossil kerosene. 

As for offsetting emissions, since the industry will not be able to eliminate them entirely at source, it will have to mitigate the remaining emissions by funding projects that capture them, such as forest planting initiatives, the option that the airline offered me, which calms our eco-anxiety and will be critical especially in the first phase of the industry’s decarbonization until SAF becomes the norm. 

Sustainable aviation fuel, offsetting emissions through financing, and we are missing another element: (solar) electricity and hydrogen. With the expected technological advances, all flights of less than 4,000 kilometers could be electrified or run on responsibly produced hydrogen, a significant turning point for our vacations and ecosystems. With luck and investment guided by ESG criteria, if we trust the announcements of huge manufacturers such as Airbus and Boeing, we will fly certified by an environmental label by 2035. 

Let’s recap. The problem is not air travel, it’s carbon. The International Air Transport Association (IATA) says that using sustainable fuels and offsetting emissions will contribute more than 80% to their reduction, while electrification promises an alternative for all short- and medium-haul air travel. So, next time you book a flight, whether for work or pleasure, think of me, check the box that takes care of our planet.

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