Transition to Sustainable Aviation Fuel Creates New Opportunities

Author photo: Gaven Simon
By Gaven Simon

 Overview

The international aviation industry accounts for 2-3 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions annually and can no longer Sustainable Aviation Fueloperate in a sustainable manner without major transformation. In October 2022, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) met for their 41st assembly. 2,500 delegates from 184 States and 57 organizations adopted a collective long-term global aspirational goal (LTAG) of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. This target should be viewed as a deadline for the airline industry to change the way aircraft are fueled, flown, and operated. The target is challenging and rigorous but with collaboration, it is possible.

Innovation Opportunities Across Fuel, Fleets, and Infrastructure

When looking at the largest emitters within the aviation industry, there are several key places where emissions could be reduced: jet fuel, planes, and on-the-ground infrastructure. An Airbus 350 burns around 32 pounds of jet fuel per nautical mile, which equates to around 14,000 gallons of fuel used for a trip between New York and London. When looking at the Boeing 747 quad jet, the numbers begin to rise steeply to about a gallon per second. There are currently 57 flights between NYC to London on any given Monday, which raise the question of how much longer this behavior can be supported under growing regulatory pressure, particularly in the European Union.

Changing Consumer Habits and Potential for Economic Payoff

Faced with such challenges to its operational model, the industry will need to transform. The aviation industry has adapted itself to accommodate consumers needs before so why not do it again? With such a wide range of economic opportunity associated with the future of the aviation industry, what are the barriers? Primarily, they have to do with short term cost and traditional approaches for calculating return on investment (ROI).

Past opposition against climate change used to include that it was too expensive to discuss right now or the classic “if it isn't broken why fix it” comeback. However, when looking at the data, increasing intensity and volume of natural disasters, which are now seen as directly connecting to climate change, cost the US 145 billion dollars in the year 2021 alone. Now that climate change is starting to hurt Americans' pockets, reducing emissions doesn’t seem to be an expensive trade off. Reducing GHG emissions from the aviation industry may not be all clear skies and smooth sailing, but it will be an avenue of opportunity in several ways.

Fuel Innovation Is Critical

The first opportunity is in how future fleets are fueled. Sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs) are a biofuel that has comparable properties to conventional jet fuel but with a smaller carbon footprint. Traditional jet fuel is derived from crude oil, while SAF feedstocks can be made up of cooking oil, plant oil, waste residues, and green hydrogen. Depending on the feedstock and the production process, SAF can reduce lifecycle greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions dramatically. These waste-derived fuel alternatives paired with more fuel-efficient jets, have the greatest possibility to reduce total emissions.

Currently, SAFs are being adopted across the world with 57 airports internationally distributing them. Airlines are increasingly purchasing SAF agreements, and there are now tens of billions of liters already under offtake agreements, with significantly more expected. While SAFs may currently be privately funded, political support leading to government investment is not too far behind, with 24 international policies already adopted or currently under development. If you have flown in the past few years, your plane could have been one of the 440k flights that were fueled using SAFs. When you consider the economic opportunity within the context of the true size of the aviation industry, the future potential for SAFs is substantial.

Fleet Modernization Must Occur in Parallel

Sustainable aviation fuels are an important factor in this equation but without modernized aircrafts the 2050 net zero target may still fall short of the landing strip. According to the US aviation climate action plan, “The evolution of modern, more efficient airframes and engines has historically produced the most significant aviation emissions reductions.” With continued significant investments in developing the next fleet of aircraft, the US is on track to see a 30 percent improvement in fuel efficiency.

Improvements will come from ultra-efficient wings, small core gas turbines, electrified and hybrid electric aircraft propulsion systems, and new manufacturing techniques that will enable rapid production. In best case scenarios, the US climate action plan foresees the introduction of the new narrow body aircraft in 2035 and the wide body aircraft being introduced five years later in 2040. Once again, this target cannot be met by one silver bullet but will take cross collaboration between all major players in the industry.

 

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Keywords: Sustainable, Aviation, Fuel, Net Zero, ICAO, SAF, Aircraft< ARC Advisory Group.

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