Confronting the aviation decarbonisation challenge

When we board a plane, most of us will experience a pang of guilt about how we are about to significantly enlarge our personal carbon footprint. Passengers, governments, and operators are keen to find solutions, explains Cheryl Wilson, ESG senior manager at Capital Group.

Although air travel contributes only about 2.5% of total global greenhouse gas emissions (according to an Air Transport Action Group (ATAG) report), this figure is on course to grow substantially in the coming decades, Wilson said. She pointed to the sources and scale of expected demand growth and described how this is likely to outstrip the benefits of more efficient aircraft design and the use of less polluting fuels.

Aircraft manufacturers have made considerable strides to make their products more efficient, but Wilson argued that the biggest gains towards achieving net-zero emissions in the aviation industry will be made with the development of cost-effective low emission sources of jet power. Currently, fuel produced from biomass (known as biofuel) is the most highly used sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), but this has had only a marginal impact so far. Furthermore, increasing the share of biofuel use in the aviation fuel mix is not without its problems, Wilson explained.

Perhaps more promising are so-called “eFuels” such as green hydrogen, which Wilson says is generating considerable interest as a potential driver of sustainable aviation. She described some of these advantages, including how relatively little infrastructure investment would be needed to incorporate these fuels at airports.

Yet even so, Wilson said that expense is likely to be the main restraint of demand for these green alternatives, even over the long term. Hence, she sees the role for regulatory action is to drive use more widely, as governments come to understand the importance of action to meet their pledges of a net-zero future.

Wilson also illuminated some of the subtleties around the debate on carbon offsetting. Some see this as a valid contribution towards achieving a net-zero world, while others suggest it amounts to camouflaging the real challenge of developing sustainable technologies. She noted the validity of both these arguments, pointing out how offsets can be part of a holistic effort as the aviation sector moves towards structural change.

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