Nature and Biodiversity

Aviation must make these changes to meet long-term emissions goals

Without stimulating sustainable aviation fuel supply, the aviation industry will not be able to achieve its climate targets.

Without stimulating sustainable aviation fuel supply, the aviation industry will not be able to achieve its climate targets. Image: Unsplash

Laia Barbarà
Acting Head, Climate Strategy, World Economic Forum
Rosa Esi Ennison
Specialist, FMC Freight Decarbonization, World Economic Forum
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Aerospace and Aviation

  • The aviation industry is responsible for 2% of total CO2 emissions and 12% of emissions from transport.
  • Leading airlines, air freight companies and corporate flyers aim to surface supply of sustainable aviation fuels to significantly cut down their emissions.
  • Here’s what First Movers Coalition aviation members are doing to meet net-zero targets for the industry.

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is the most promising means for an airline to accelerate progress towards a net-zero future. This liquid drop-in fuel, made using feedstocks like waste oil and fats, and biomass, can decarbonize the aviation industry, which currently contributes 2% of total CO2 emissions and 12% of emissions from transport on an annual basis.

But while SAF can reduce CO2 emissions from flying by up to 80%, it only comprises less than 1% of total jet fuel demand. Establishing a market for SAF requires increased investment from offtakers like airlines and even corporate flyers, who can purchase certificates for SAF, to scale supply.


What is the World Economic Forum doing to reduce aviation's carbon footprint?

The First Movers Coalition (FMC) is working to decrease emissions across seven hard-to-abate sectors responsible for about 30% of global emissions – aviation included – using the power of demand. By committing to purchase near-zero emissions products and clean technologies, members send a powerful signal to producers to invest in and increase production of innovative solutions like SAF, ultimately increasing their availability and accelerating their commercialization tipping point.

Members are adopting the following solutions – and their example shows what’s needed to make long-term change possible.

Developing book-and-claim systems to encourage SAF uptake

A book-and-claim system is a chain of custody, or certificate trading model, which supports uptake of SAF even though supply chains are limited in geographical scope and volumes are low. This mechanism permits airlines, corporate flyers and purchasers of air freight to purchase environmental attributes of SAF and signal demand for SAF without necessarily flying on it physically. In 2022, American Express Global Business Travel (Amex GBT) partnered with Shell Aviation to launch Avelia, one of the first live blockchain powered book-and-claim platforms for SAF, and part of one of the world’s largest SAF programmes. Bank of America recently announced that through platforms like Avelia, it has been able to purchase SAF and work towards fulfilling its goal of carrying 20% of corporate travel on flights powered by SAF. Furthermore, Bank of America has committed to investing $2 billion to support production of 1.2 million gallons of SAF per year starting 2025; Avelia has brought the bank closer to achieving this.

Andrew Crawley, President of Amex GBT, said: “Bringing together airlines and businesses, Amex GBT is working to spread the environmental benefits of SAF across the aviation value chain while helping generate the scale of demand necessary for the sector to achieve net-zero by 2050.”

Investing in innovative technology solutions

To make direct investments in production, United Airlines Ventures (UAV) this year launched a Sustainable Flight Fund, offering a way for companies and consumers to come together to increase the supply of SAF by providing support to start-ups focused on SAF production. The fund started with $100 million in investments and has now grown to nearly $200 million in investment power from 13 organizations across the aviation value chain who have partnered with UAV in the fund to support production of more than 5 billion gallons of SAF.

“United has invested in seven companies so far”, says Lauren Riley, Chief Sustainability Officer of United Airlines. These include companies like CEMVITA and Dimensional Energy deriving SAF from carbon dioxide using synthetic biology and another, NxtClean Fuels, prioritizing use of organic feedstocks to produce SAF. Testing and investing in these innovative technologies and alternative feedstocks for SAF production will shed light on pathways for scaled supply.

Full value chain collaboration

In August of 2023, Delta joined forces with Bank of America, Ecolab, Xcel Energy and Greater MSP to establish the Minnesota SAF Hub, the first large-scale SAF Hub in the US with collaboration among key players across the value chain committed to scaling SAF production to replace conventional jet fuel. These anchor partners are joined by other leading institutions, including the State of Minnesota, to implement an ambitious shared strategy for aggressively decarbonizing the airline industry.

The Minnesota SAF Hub is initially focused on bringing commercial-scale volumes of affordable SAF to the Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) International Airport by 2025. It’s accomplishing this by taking a full value-chain approach to decarbonizing aviation – liaising with agricultural players at the very start of the SAF supply chain and ending with airlines demanding less-emitting fuels. In addition, over the next decade, the Hub is also focused on establishing multiple SAF production facilities in Minnesota.

As Amelia Deluca, Delta Air Lines’ Chief Sustainability Officer, said: “The very definition of being innovative is to introduce new ways of doing things from something that’s already established. There is no industry that’s embraced that idea more than aviation.”

Shared commitments

The FMC has helped spur momentum for change thanks to shared commitments and targets that can scale progress. In November 2021, during COP26, 14 airlines and corporate flyers signed a commitment to adopt emerging technologies including SAF to reduce their emissions by 2030. Airlines and air freight companies made an ambitious pledge to replace at least 5% of their conventional jet fuel demand with SAF that reduces life-cycle GHG emissions by at least 85% in comparison to conventional jet fuel (SAF85) by 2030.

In the same vein, purchasers of airfare and air freight pledged to replace at least 5% of their demand for air transport using SAF85 by 2030. Both commitments also make room for additional emissions reduction benefits from zero-carbon emitting propulsion technologies.

Today, the FMC aviation sector membership has grown to 27 members and counting. If these members are able to achieve these commitments, an estimated 9.6 million tonnes per year of GHG emissions will be avoided by 2030.

Have you read?

Looking ahead

Without stimulating SAF supply, the aviation industry will not be able to achieve its climate targets.

With inputs from aviation member companies, FMC launched a SAF Offtake Manual detailing key considerations for early SAF offtakers to further support activities in this nascent market.

Additionally, with support from Deloitte, FMC is building a supplier database as a one-stop-shop for tracing sources of SAF supply. Furthermore, the initiative is running supply surfacing workshops to better understand opportunities emerging economies present in scaling SAF development, widening the conversation across geographies and supporting a truly global transition.

Finally, the FMC aims to highlight innovative technologies for aviation decarbonization and launched a Sustainable Aviation Challenge in collaboration with Salesforce and Deloitte. The challenge called for aviation decarbonization solutions going beyond SAF to unveil groundbreaking technology pathways and received 130 submissions, which are currently under review.

The following authors also contributed to this article: Andrew Crawley, President, American Express Global Business Travel; Amelia Deluca, Chief Sustainability Officer, Delta Air Lines; Lauren Riley, Chief Sustainability Officer, United Airlines.

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