Navigating the skies to net zero: Decarbonizing the aviation industry

December 15, 2023

Navigating the skies to net zero: Decarbonizing the aviation industry

In recognition of its impact on climate change and the urgency of climate action at scale, the aviation industry has committed to an ambitious journey towards decarbonization. A collective pledge aims to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, with some airlines eyeing 2040 as an early target.

Currently, aviation accounts for around 2.5% of global CO2 emissions, due to most aircraft being powered by fossil-based fuel. If the industry continues on its current trajectory, aviation could be responsible for a staggering 22% of global emissions by 2050. Aviation is a particularly difficult industry to decarbonize, and embracing sustainability strategies and climate solutions–such as sustainable aviation fuel (SAF)–is critical for reaching this milestone.

A global concern

Among greenhouse gas (GHG)-emitting industries, aviation faces some of the toughest challenges on the path to decarbonization. The sector’s growth—driven by increasing demand for air travel—relies heavily on fossil fuels, hindering a smooth transition to alternative energy sources. When including the impact of contrails (trails of condensed water vapor created by jet engines), aviation has contributed 4% to warming, further demonstrating the imperative action needed to meet the Paris Agreement’s 1.5°C global warming target.

The regulatory landscape

A key driver in reaching net zero will be the tightening of regulations and increasing compliance measures. Governments around the globe are adopting initiatives like the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) to stabilize net CO2 emissions from international flights. In doing so, the aviation industry can be held accountable for reducing its carbon footprint and simultaneously incentivized to accelerate their efforts.

A multifaceted approach to sustainability

Decarbonizing aviation requires a comprehensive approach to sustainability as a business strategy. Airlines, and the aviation industry as a whole, must make both near- and long-term investments across several areas including fleet renewal, technological improvements, system-wide operational efficiencies, and accelerated use of sustainable aviation fuel. For many airlines, carbon offsets and removals will be one component of their multifaceted climate strategies.

The promising role of SAF

Sustainable aviation fuel stands out as one of the most critical levers for decarbonizing aviation in the short-term. Derived from renewable sources like biomass, algae, and waste materials, SAF can achieve up to an 80% reduction in lifecycle carbon emissions as compared to traditional jet fuel. Notably, it is compatible with existing aircraft, making it an available and feasible option for the industry today.

However, SAF makes up less than 1% of global jet fuel demand and must increase to 13-15% by 2040 to successfully achieve net zero by 2050. While we continue to see demand from the aviation industry and its customers, parallel to scaling demand for SAF, we need to scale SAF supply to meet growing demand. This requires the creation of at least 300-400 new SAF plants in order to set the industry on the right path. Scaling SAF adoption, production, and distribution requires significant investment, research, and development—all of which, in turn, requires collaboration among airlines, fuel producers, and governments.

SAF is not a standalone solution; it should be adopted alongside other measures, such as technological advancement, in order to create a viable path to net zero by 2050.

Decarbonization in the aviation industry is an essential step towards a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future. Despite challenges and the need for substantial investment, SAF emerges as one of the most impactful solutions available today.

The time for climate action is now. To explore the role SAF can play in your decarbonization journey, connect with CHOOOSE.

Additional sources: World Economic Forum (1), World Economic Forum (2), Energy Transitions Committee, Bloomberg, IATA (1), IATA (2)