How airlines can chart a path to zero-carbon flying

Even before the coronavirus pandemic began, the airline industry was facing the challenge of reducing its carbon emissions in line with international goals to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. The current crisis could provide forward-thinking airlines with a chance to emphasize their fuel-efficiency programs and justify the retirement of older, less-fuel-efficient aircraft. Modernizing fleets and improving operational efficiency are important; however, in the best case, annual industry growth counters the emissions that they save. Carbon offsetting holds more promise, and it can help serve as a bridge while the industry takes action needed to reduce its own emissions over time.

The option that could be transformative is SAF. Compared with fossil kerosene, SAF could mean a reduction in carbon emissions of 70 percent to almost 100 percent. While SAF has drawbacks, including high prices and supply concerns, airline CEOs should view it as a promising tool in their decarbonization tool kits. To help push options forward, airlines can make targeted investments and purchase commitments that would increase SAF use (currently at less than 1 percent of total consumed jet fuel) while reducing costs.

Because of the scale of the challenge, any solution will require a multistakeholder approach that also includes governments, tech players, and suppliers. The trick is to create a suitable regulatory framework and supporting incentives so that no single player is penalized for going it alone.

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