The aviation industry, under increasing pressure to curb its fast-growing carbon emissions, is placing huge bets on both sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) and electric aviation to meet its net-zero carbon emissions goal by 2050.
But while some predictions are optimistic, including that the aviation industry will be 25 percent electric or hybrid by 2025, a more likely scenario is that the first fully electric flights will be limited to a few regional or short-haul trips. Yet with an estimated half of all global flights totaling under 500 miles, that's a lot of potential for cutting GHG emissions.
In 2021, aviation was responsible for over 2 percent of global energy-related carbon emissions, having grown faster in recent decades than road, rail or shipping. Despite a temporary decline due to the COVID-19 pandemic, emissions from the sector are expected to surpass their 2019 level over the next few years.
It's no surprise, then, that Alice — the world's first all-electric passenger commuter aircraft made by Washington state-based Eviation Aircraft — made headlines for its test flight in September. Some major players like United Airlines are setting their sights on having electric aircraft flying regional routes by 2030.
Another new kid on the block for electric aircraft is Swedish hybrid electric airplane maker Heart Aerospace, and major airlines like Air Canada, Saab, United, Icelandair, SAS and others have been snapping up sizable investments in its hybrid-electric planes.
But while fully electric airplanes capture the imagination, the reality of sustainable aviation can look different on the ground. More research is needed to make the technology available for larger commercial flights. And, not least, there needs to be sufficient capital investment in the transformation of aviation toward more sustainable solutions. One recent report estimated that achieving net-zero aviation will cost $175 billion per year until 2050.
For Niklas Lund, CEO of Stockholm-based Rockton, a company focused on sustainable and climate-change mitigating aviation investments and assets, the answer is clear. Rockton has signed a letter of intent for 40 of Heart Aerospace aircraft and champions the technology breakthroughs among companies. However, Lund warns that sufficient investment has got to be part of the solution.
"We're going to need a massive investment of capital," Lund says. "And the question is: Can the aviation industry carry that capital investment by themselves? And my view is no, they won't be able to do that. They need external capital to help them or to facilitate it."
One big hurdle is sufficient supply of sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), which Lund predicts airlines will need for some time to meet their carbon goals. The competition for SAF also comes from other industries clamoring for renewable feedstocks to meet their climate commitments.
For that reason, the industry was delighted when the 2022 U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) included a tax credit for SAF. This means that along with multi-year agreements already in place for millions of gallons of SAF airlines have recently purchased, the blenders' tax credit boosts renewable fuel producers' ability to raise the billions of dollars of financing required to build planned biorefineries.
The European Commission has proposed legislation that increases the uptake of SAF by airlines, the EU ReFuelEU Aviation Initiative, part of the EU's goal to reduce emissions by at least 55 percent by 2030.
And in response to the U.S. IRA, the EU is proposing the new Net-Zero Industry Act, which includes, among other steps, an ambition to speed up permits processes for clean-tech production sites and more financial support for clean-tech development.
Lund expects the new EU legislation to include "sizable and long-term financial incentives for clean technologies, including support for aviation."
The SAF supply challenge matters to airlines' corporate customers, too, as they pledge their own ambitious climate goals. Bank of America, for instance, aims to support the production and use of 1 billion gallons of SAF by 2030 to help meet its 2050 net-zero goal.
"With the government support that we're seeing and the push from the corporate market to make their own investments in sustainable aviation, we're beginning to see the kind of commitment to the transformation we need for sustainable aviation to really take off," Lund says.
Image credit: Ross Parmly/Unsplash
Based in southwest Florida, Amy has written about sustainability and the Triple Bottom Line for over 20 years, specializing in sustainability reporting, policy papers and research reports for multinational clients in pharmaceuticals, consumer goods, ICT, tourism and other sectors. She also writes for Ethical Corporation and is a contributor to Creating a Culture of Integrity: Business Ethics for the 21st Century. Connect with Amy on LinkedIn.