Industries in Depth

Aviation's flight path to a net-zero future

Airplane on runway.

Achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 requires multi-stakeholder action. Image: Getty Images.

Huibert Vigeveno
Downstream Director, Shell
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  • Aviation connects people and is fundamental to the world economy, but it is responsible for around 3% of global carbon dioxide emissions.
  • Multi-stakeholder cooperation is needed if the industry is to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.
  • A new report reveals the views of more than 100 global aviation business leaders on how to decarbonize the sector.

The warnings are clear. The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says the effects of global warming are widespread and intensifying. When world leaders gather at the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) in a few weeks’ time, they will have calls for action ringing in their ears.

Of course, it is not just world leaders and governments who must respond – responsibility rests with all of us. But sometimes, especially in harder-to-abate sectors such as aviation, it can seem difficult to see how to turn goodwill into effective action.

Have you read?

That is why Shell and Deloitte have worked together on a series of reports exploring these sectors. Having examined shipping and road freight, our third and most recent report considers aviation. Decarbonising Aviation: Cleared for Take-off is based on the insights of more than 100 aviation leaders, from 68 organisations.

These leaders acknowledged the challenges, particularly around developing future technology: electric planes would seem to require huge batteries; hydrogen-powered aircraft might need fuel tanks four times the size of those on modern jets.

Critically, the experts consulted said the current sector-wide targets need to become more ambitious. Although aviation represents 3% of global emissions today, that could rise to 22% by 2050, as more people fly and other sectors decarbonize more quickly. If other sectors produce less and less greenhouse gas while aviation does nothing, its share of total global emissions will increase.

The report concluded that aviation should have net-zero targets for 2050, with ambitious interim steps for 2030. It outlined 15 solutions to help aviation reduce its net emissions between now and 2030, with a view to reaching net zero by 2050.

Image: Shell.

Expanding the use of alternative fuel

Perhaps the most significant proposed solution is to greatly expand the use of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF). SAF is made from plant or animal material, including for example, waste oils. In future it may also be possible to make industrial-scale quantities of synthetic SAF using hydrogen obtained from low-emission sources and carbon dioxide taken from other industrial processes or the air.

In its neat form, SAF has the potential to cut life-cycle emissions from aviation by up to 80%. It can be blended with conventional jet fuel and put in existing aeroplanes, without them needing major design changes. But depending on the technology used, SAF can be up to eight times more expensive than conventional jet fuel. It currently accounts for less than 0.1% of around 300 million tonnes of fuel used every year by commercial airlines.

Closing this cost gap and ensuring more SAF is used will, like so much of the action needed on climate change, require joint effort: within aviation, with other sectors, and with regulatory incentives. When Shell published Cleared for Take-off, it announced its ambition to produce 2 million tonnes of SAF a year by 2025. This would make Shell a leading global producer of SAF. It aligns with Shell’s strategy of accelerating progress towards becoming a provider of net-zero emissions energy products and services.

Incentives to reduce emissions

As Shell and the aviation sector work towards net zero, a particularly influential group can help us: customer power is likely to play an important role in decarbonizing aviation.

The report highlighted how companies – corporations whose employees travel on business and firms that transport cargo – are increasingly willing to pay a green premium for flights that reduce net emissions by using SAF and high-quality offsets. This is because more and more companies are pledging to reduce their emissions. They are signing up in ever increasing numbers to the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which requires them to set targets that align with the Paris Agreement.

According to the UN, corporates with net-zero ambitions represent a total annual revenue of $11.4 trillion, more than half the GDP of the US. Airlines can respond to this growing demand with flights that help their customers fulfil their net-zero ambitions, either through SAF, high-quality carbon offsets, or a combination of the two. There are already encouraging signs. When a carbon-neutral cargo flight was introduced between China and Germany recently, it quickly attracted impressive levels of interest.

The demand from business travel could form something of a critical mass in support of decarbonization. Around 200 large corporates, for example, represent a 16% share of global air travel. That is a relatively concentrated group of customers, many of them keen to reduce their emissions. Aviation and its customers can help each other get to net zero. To succeed, they will also need to be supported by regulation. Ideally, this will involve blending mandates that set minimum amounts of SAF to be combined with traditional jet fuel.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to help aviation meet net zero goals?

The report also found enthusiasm for schemes like California’s Low-Carbon Fuel Standard, where low-carbon-intensity fuels get credits that can be sold, creating an incentive to use and develop products like SAF.

No one should pretend that decarbonizing aviation will always be easy, but no one should ever give up. I find it wonderful to see the pioneering, can-do spirit of the industry while confronting even the toughest problems – for example the resources and effort going into developing battery electric and hydrogen planes that could one day make zero-emission flight a reality.

For all the challenges, aviation should retain its optimism. It should remember the benefits that the sector brings. In 2019, aviation supported $3.5 trillion (4.1%) of the world’s GDP. During the COVID-19 pandemic, aircraft helped transport vital personal protective equipment and vaccines. The report found that decarbonization was a top-three priority for 90% of the experts consulted. Aviation has goodwill and good solutions. It can answer the calls for action.

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