Nature and Biodiversity

Clear skies for a sustainable future: how innovation can accelerate aviation's net-zero journey

An aeroplane in flight, highlighting the importance of sustainable aviation

A new era of sustainable aviation must take off Image: Photo by John McArthur on Unsplash

Tim van den Bergh
Project Lead, World Economic Forum
Jamila Yamani
Director, Climate and Energy, Salesforce
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This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate

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  • Aviation accounts for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions and, with air travel projected to increase, these emissions are poised to escalate.
  • At the core of aviation's decarbonization efforts is sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which is key to helping reshape the industry's path for emissions reduction in the short to medium term.
  • Together with its partners, the World Economic Forum is launching the Sustainable Aviation Challenge on UpLink to accelerate the development and adoption of sustainable aviation fuel and other propulsion solutions.

In a world where the urgency of combating climate change has reached new heights, few industries face as much scrutiny as the aviation sector. The skies have traditionally symbolized limitless potential, yet they also carry the burden of an undeniable carbon footprint. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), aviation accounts for 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions. With air travel projected to increase over this decade, these emissions are only poised to further escalate.

Today, there are limited low-carbon solutions and groundbreaking advancements in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and alternative propulsion technologies. The significance of these innovations has never been more pronounced. Notably, the IEA forecasts that 50% of the emission reductions necessary for net-zero targets must be driven by technologies that are either still in their conceptual stages or have not yet attained the necessary scalability.

At the core of aviation's decarbonization efforts is sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which is key to helping reshape the industry's path for emissions reduction in the short to medium term. Current sustainable aviation fuel, mostly sourced from renewables, organics, or waste, is a compelling alternative to traditional jet fuel. Yet, scalability and feedstock limits hinder widespread adoption. Advanced fuel technologies, such as alcohol-to-jet and e-fuels (i.e. SAF85) are crucial for long-term decarbonization, but their nascent stages and lack of scalability pose challenges.

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Aviation trailblazers

In the mission to transform aviation and expedite its journey to net-zero, the significance of trailblazers who align climate objectives with business goals cannot be overstated. These innovators have the potential to reshape the industry's course with their ideas and solutions.

Some of the most exciting ideas and solutions we’ve seen include companies such as Twelve, a pioneer in carbon transformation technology, which is working towards fossil-free aviation fuels made from CO2, water and renewable energy. Then there is Synhelion, which has developed a unique technology to produce carbon-neutral solar fuels from solar energy, and Boom Supersonic, which is designing a new supersonic airliner and committing to using 100% sustainable aviation fuel to power its aircraft.

While sustainable aviation fuel is crucial, achieving net-zero aviation also requires alternative propulsion technologies. Hydrogen aircraft and high-density batteries show promise, but scalability is uncertain. Companies such as Universal Hydrogen aim to convert existing fleets and offer fuel services, targeting passenger service by 2025. Electrified aviation is also evolving, with startups such as Eviation developing all-electric propulsion for regional flights.

These innovators are at the cutting edge of science and technology, but they cannot transform the industry alone. They need the support of an ecosystem to achieve scalability and to make net-zero aviation possible.

The Sustainable Aviation Challenge

To this end, we’re excited to launch the Sustainable Aviation Challenge on UpLink to accelerate the development and adoption of sustainable aviation fuel and other propulsion solutions, with the broader vision of enhancing the viability of promising start-ups in this space. The challenge brings together the World Economic Forum, the First Movers Coalition, which is co-chaired by the U.S. Department of State, industry leaders and technology innovators to drive the aviation industry forward.

Top Innovators will be able to leverage the Forum’s network, foster collaborations with industry players and establish a start-up ecosystem that can catalyse value chains. By fostering innovation, collaboration and transformation, this challenge propels exciting market innovation, underscoring the imperative for joint efforts by startups, governments, investors and corporate buyers to achieve global climate objectives and ensure a future where the skies symbolise limitless possibilities while protecting our planet.

Innovation ignites the spark, but collaboration fuels progress. Innovators need robust support ecosystems to turn ideas into reality. Investment, testing facilities, mentorship and industry collaboration are crucial. Established aviation players can transition from competitors to vital collaborators, sharing expertise, resources and networks to accelerate groundbreaking technology development.

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