Airlines could account for 20% of global emissions by 2050, report finds

Unless the aviation sector accelerates efforts to decarbonise, its share of global annual emissions could grow from 3% at present to 20% by 2050, according to a new analysis from Boston Consulting Group (BCG).

Aviation is widely considered a hard-to-abate sector and is one of the fastest-growing in the world in terms of emissions

Aviation is widely considered a hard-to-abate sector and is one of the fastest-growing in the world in terms of emissions

The calculation takes into account forecasted decarbonisation in other industries and growth in the airline sector – which, pandemic aside, had been one of the world’s fastest-growing sources of emissions – as well as current business plans for scaling up low-carbon technologies and carbon offsetting.

BCG has stated that avoiding growth in sector emissions, to a level incompatible with net-zero by 2050, will be challenging but is theoretically possible with the right mix of solutions. These include energy-efficient aircraft and other equipment; bio-based sustainable fuels; synthetic sustainable fuels; electric aircraft; hydrogen aircraft and carbon removal solutions.

Its report states that between 40% and 70% of the emissions projected to be generated by the sector in 2050 could be avoided through improvements in efficiencies and through the uptake of bio-based sustainable aviation fuels (SAF). In the least ambitious scenario, 30% of the reductions would be driven by efficiency improvements and 10% would de driven by bio-based SAF use.

BGC has called both estimates “bullish” and cautioned that emissions reductions will only be achieved with conservative, collaborative efforts to retrofit and upgrade existing fleets, improve air traffic management and scale up the global SAF supply chain. Bio-based SAF represented just 0.01% of the aviation fuel used in 2020 and is currently up to six times more expensive than traditional jet fuel.

In either scenario, BCG states, addressing the remaining 30-60% of emissions without over-relying on carbon offsetting will require the use of emerging technologies that do not yet exist at a commercial scale.  The report does not outline which technologies could deliver which portion of the necessary emissions reductions, as all of those listed – hydrogen fuel cells, pure or hybrid-electric planes and synthetic SAFs – are in their relative infancy.

While synthetic SAF suppliers do exist, current prices are up to five times higher than traditional jet fuel. Prices could decrease rapidly and supply could scale quickly, BCG is predicting, as oil and gas majors scale up investment. On electric aviation, BGC states that pure-electric aircraft will likely only be used for domestic short-haul trips for several decades, as it is a challenge to electrify aircraft large enough to complete commercial medium-haul or long-haul flights.

On hydrogen, the report states: “The same challenges that impede hydrogen fuel cells—hydrogen production and storage—hamper development. Aircraft engines will have to be redesigned and airframe structures rethought to store the required hydrogen volume—changes that will likely take decades.”

The report concludes that, while it is theoretically possible to deliver a net-zero aviation industry without the use of carbon offsetting, this is unlikely to happen before 2050. The report urges airlines to consider, in-depth, whether they wish to support nature-based solutions or man-made technologies, which both have several pros and cons.

It is worth noting that the BGC report does not consider the possibility of capping growth in the aviation sector – as recommended by the UK’s Climate Change Committee (CCC). It states: “Unlike other industries, there are so few alternatives to air travel that it’s hard to avoid emissions without doing away with the basic product.”

SAF partnership

The BCG report was released late last week. Today (7 September), the firm announced a new partnership with SkyNRG – a Dutch firm that produces SAF using waste bio-oil, agricultural waste and ‘non-fossil CO2’, including captured carbon.

The partnership sees BCG joining SkyNRG’s ‘Board Now’ programme, which enables corporates to invest in SAF production every time their staff make a business travel flight. The change will take effect for flights taken by BCG staff from early 2022.

Under the scheme, BCG will specify what proportion of the aircraft’s fuel demands it would like met with SAF. Current regulations restrict blending to a maximum of 50%.

SkyNRG then verifies that the equivalent amount of SAF has been produced and provided to an airport local to the production facility, using a ‘book and claim’ approach. It has stated that SAF is not provided directly as this is logistically challenging and could actually increase supply chain emissions.

Other corporates participating in the ‘Board Now’ scheme include Microsoft, PwC and SkyScanner.

Sarah George



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