Opinion: Why Sustainable Aviation Fuel Is Key To Clean Aviation
As an industry, we know that achieving net-zero carbon emissions from aviation by 2050 will be extremely difficult. We have always acknowledged that the road ahead will be challenging. Based on this knowledge, and in full conscience, member airlines of the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in October 2021 took the historic step of committing to decarbonizing aviation by 2050.
We decided to align with the Paris Agreement as a continuation of our efforts dating back to 2008, when IATA members committed to carbon-neutral growth from 2020. Based on this successful track record, we believe that net-zero carbon emissions are achievable. We fully understand that this road is long, complex and bumpy. However, the first argument was that a commitment from our side will send a signal to the market that we are serious about it. Such a commitment is making us accountable and scrutinized. We take it seriously, and we intend to deliver on it.
The question then becomes: How do we deliver? We looked at various scenarios to decarbonize before making that commitment. In our analyses, we determined that scaling up production and availability of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is key to decarbonizing a notoriously hard-to-abate sector. Scenarios vary, but one thing that is clear is that SAF will represent the biggest share of the solution identified to reach net zero. We expect to rely on SAF so strongly because at this time, it is the only reliable avenue to decarbonize the sector without disrupting the air connectivity that drives the global economy. SAF has been in use for several years, with more than 450,000 flights powered by a combination of SAF and conventional fuel already having occurred.
Moreover, global SAF capacity will leap from a handful of operating facilities in 2022 to close to 100 by 2025 and is projected to expand to several hundred by 2030. About 80,000 metric tons of SAF (100 million liters) was produced and used in 2021, and by 2030 it is reasonable to forecast that around 24 million metric tons of SAF can be made available.
In getting there, IATA will work together with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), governments and other stakeholders to ensure that enough SAF will be produced from the world’s biorefineries, which are simultaneously producing competing products such as renewable diesel. Our projections show that 33 million metric tons of renewable fuel could be produced by 2025. With additional facilities coming online, we expect to see a more than doubling of 2025’s overall renewable fuel capacity by 2030.
We believe that it is a good foundation to continue scaling. Reaching a production of 30 billion liters of SAF would be a tipping point, as it would send a clear signal to the market that SAF is playing its intended long-term role in aviation’s decarbonization and encourage investments to drive up production and drive down the price. The passing of the Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S. is an excellent example of what needs to happen: Around $400 billion has been dedicated to the reduction of carbon emissions. Particularly crucial to reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 is the inclusion of a SAF blender’s tax credit and a clean fuel production tax credit.
Aviation is in the midst of one of its fastest transformations, born of necessity. Our goal is to decarbonize aviation without reducing aviation’s historic and growing role in supporting freedom of movement and commerce. Our globalized world depends on aviation connectivity, and today’s rebound is proving it.
Of course, we understand that reaching net-zero emissions by 2050 demands a comprehensive energy transition. However, this transition will never be encompassed by one unique scenario. We predict that decarbonizing will require around 450 billion liters of SAF from all existing pathways (including nascent synthetic pathways such as power-to-liquid complemented by new hydrogen-powered aircraft technology). We understand that such large figures may generate questions and doubts. Our role is to address them and push for more efforts.
These scenarios are written with the technical knowledge of 2022. SAF and hydrogen pathways will continue to benefit from further efficiency improvements, enabled by enhanced technologies, production processes and operations. They will evolve and improve year after year and should provide us with more opportunities to decarbonize.
We have adopted a pragmatic mindset, building from existing resources, technology and capabilities that have the potential to take aviation to new heights. Working together with government and industry stakeholders, we will make net-zero carbon emissions a reality by 2050.
Sebastian Mikosz is senior vice president for environment and sustainability at the International Air Transport Association.