How airlines can chart a path to zero-carbon flying

May 14, 2020

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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