Aviation Stakeholders Must Rise To Meet Sustainability Goal Challenges

sustainability panel
Credit: IATA

Aviation industry players have already begun discussing ways to put feet on IATA’s recently approved resolution that commits member airlines to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. 

The pledge brings air transport in line with the objectives of the Paris agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 °C (34.7°F). 

After the resolution was passed at IATA’s 77th annual general meeting (AGM), which met in Boston Oct. 3-5, IATA Director General and CEO Willie Walsh said achieving net zero emissions will be a “huge challenge” and will require a collective effort.

“All industry stakeholders, including governments, must each individually take responsibility to address the environmental impact of their policies, products and activities,” Walsh said. “And they must work together to deliver sustainable connectivity and ultimately break aviation’s dependence on fossil fuels.”

Walsh estimated the financial cost to the industry will be “close to $2 trillion in gross costs.” However, IATA chairman, AGM host and JetBlue Airways CEO Robin Hayes said the reason the industry is embracing the resolution “is not the cost of doing it but the cost of not doing it.”

In the midst of celebrating the milestone resolution, a group of panelists gathered to discuss what that collective effort will look like for industry stakeholders, many of which have already begun or accelerated sustainability initiatives. Overall, they were optimistic the industry will be able to deliver on this charge. They agreed that while the exact path isn’t known today, there are clear ways to meet the goal as long as the industry works together and follows the same direction.

“There is still a lot of work to be done, but airlines are stepping up,” KLM CEO president and CEO Pieter Elbers said, even though he believes they will be small steps in developing sustainable aviation fuels (SAFs), new aircraft design and reducing weight. 

Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO Stanley Deal agreed that the way forward will be mini steps to make air travel efficient, which includes SAF, research and development, electric propulsion and hydrogen-powered aircraft. Deal said the commitment will provide the opportunity for OEMs to innovate and pointed out that he sees young engineers coming on board who are asking the right questions on sustainability goals. “They are eager to be part of it,” he said.

In July, Boeing announced a partnership with SkyNRG and SkyNRG Americas that is focused on scaling the availability and use of SAF globally. Boeing said at the time the companies “will work together to accelerate SAF development globally, focusing on scaling production capacity, building awareness and engaging stakeholders throughout the value chain, including airlines, governments and environmental organizations.” 

Airbus CEO Guillaume Faury said the next step will be collaboration; there is no single solution. Faury called for the need to align demand into the supply chain that is yet to evolve. In addition to other sustainability initiatives, Airbus announced in late September it will start delivering all aircraft from its U.S. manufacturing facility in Mobile, Alabama with SAF on board later in 2021. 

Biotech company LanzaTech CEO Jennifer Holmgren believes the clear path to achieving the 2030 goal is in increasing SAF volumes and reducing costs, perhaps with SAF blends and tax credits. “But we need to look at it incrementally,” Holmgren said. For example, 2025 goals could include buyer groups on SAF, government support for building demos and first-of-kind technologies. “Pieces are just as important as the target,” Holmgren said.

LanzaTech is partnering with the U.S. Energy Department’s Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) to build and operate a pre-pilot facility to produce SAF from biogenic waste carbon dioxide (CO2) such as is emitted from corn refining and renewable hydrogen (H2). LanzaTech will use renewable power from an onsite solar farm at the Soperton, Georgia site to show how efficient CO2 conversion with their technology can produce the equivalent of 35 gal./day of fuel.

Holmgren said CO2 conversion technology will be a disruption that “will change the industry and give us a license to fly. It will be a path to show what is possible.” But, she said, “we have to bring everyone along by working with early movers and leaders. We need to have a shared, common vision.” 

And governments need to get on board. U.S. Transportation Department Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Aviation and International Affairs Annie Petsonk said that governments “need to set clear standards for the lifecycle emission of fuels.” She pointed to the U.S. multi-agency Sustainable Aviation Fuel Grand Challenge to boost production of low-carbon fuels, which is the centerpiece of a package of new and existing actions announced by the Biden administration in September. The main aim of the actions is to accelerate the scaling up of SAF production with the goal of producing at least 3 billion gal. a year by 2030, up from 4.5 million gal. in 2020.

“This sector has been a cornucopia of innovation,” Petsonk said, but the innovation thus far has been choppy. “Governments need to recognize that standards are crucial for the industry’s development. Policies are tools to smooth it out.”

Holmgren sees a lot of hope for everyone in the industry stepping up. “We have a saying, ‘No carbon left behind,”’ Holmgren said. “Carbon has to be part of the circulatory environment and not up in the air.”


Linda Blachly

Linda Blachly is Senior Associate Editor for Air Transport World and Aviation Week. She joined the company in July 2010 and is responsible for producing features for Air Transport World’s monthly magazine and engaging content for the aviationweek.com. She is based in the Washington DC office.