Airlines are already falling behind in their drive to cut carbon emissions to zero by mid-century


The global airline industry has pledged to cut its carbon emissions by 2050 to just 50% of what they were in 2005. And a few, led by United Airlines, are pushing to eliminate all carbon emissions by the same 2050 deadline.

But even though that deadline is still apparently 29 years away, they are quickly running out of time. If airlines do not make the significant changes required to the planes they fly, the engines they use, and / or the fuels they burn over the next few years, they have no realistic chance of even doing so. move closer to their carbon emission reduction targets.

Furthermore, their ability to meet these ambitious goals by 2050 may also depend, to some extent, on the upcoming adoption of a version of President Biden’s controversial and extremely expensive infrastructure spending proposal.

Biden’s plan was originally rolled out with a price tag of $ 2.25 trillion, with the majority of that spending going on projects never before considered items of “infrastructure.” Last week, the administration said it would agree to a cost-cutting plan only $ 1.75 trillion. Congressional Republicans still want to reduce the cost of that gargantuan spending bill to nearly $ 1 trillion, mainly by cutting many more of these unconventional “infrastructure” projects. And it could threaten the adoption of a new proposal to help US carriers meet their ambitious goal of reducing carbon emissions.

Last week, a trio of House members introduced the Sustainable Skies Act which, if passed either as a stand-alone bill or, more likely, as part of the big Biden infrastructure bill. , would give producers of “sustainable aviation fuels”, or SAF, a huge tax. credits ranging from $ 1.50 to $ 2 per gallon for each gallon of SAF produced. This would encourage producers to invest in the technology and equipment needed to manufacture SAFs, which are currently more expensive to produce, even at high production volumes, than conventional jet fuel.

The final amount of these federal tax credits would depend on the amount of carbon emissions actually reduced by the blending and use of these fuels. Thus, the more producers succeed in producing SAF, the more the industry succeeds in adapting its equipment to use higher concentrations of SAF, the more the government would participate in subsidizing the production of SAF.

SAF is already in use today, although it represents only a small percentage of all fuels burned by commercial aviation. In its current form, SAF is an “instant” replacement for conventional kerosene-based jet fuel. This means that engines and planes don’t need to be modified to fly on them. At least not if used as part of a 50-50 blend of SAF and conventional jet fuel. But for airlines to meet their 2050 goal of reducing carbon emissions to just 50% of what they were in 2005, they will need to burn 100% SAF, or something very close to 100%, by then. .

And that means they have a long, long way to go, as existing jet engines would require very significant modifications to operate both powerful enough and safe enough that planes could fly while burning even a 70- mixture. 30 SAF-jet fuel, not to mention 100% SAF fuel. Engine experts say that at a ratio of 70 to 30, the synthetic materials now used in the hoses and gaskets of existing jet engines would likely be subject to rapid deterioration and failure. It would therefore be necessary to find new materials to use them in their place. And it could take years of experimentation and testing before such engines – and the planes that use them – can be certified for commercial service.

But even flying a 70-30 blend of kerosene SAF will not allow the industry to meet its goal of reducing carbon emissions by 2050. Again, to do so, the industry will have to burn the fuel. SAF exclusively, or almost exclusively.

Other options exist, technically. The industry could try to design, test and certify whole new engines that would only burn the SAF. They could choose to pursue battery-powered planes as an alternative way to achieve zero carbon emissions. Or they could switch to hydrogen as an airplane fuel, either by burning the hydrogen itself in jet engines or by using hydrogen fuel cells that mix hydrogen with an oxidizing chemical to generate electricity that would power new motors hundreds of times more powerful than any other electric motor today. motor motors.

But each of these alternatives presents huge technological, testing, manufacturing, certification, supply chain, cost, and capital investment barriers that will certainly take longer to overcome than the 29 years available to companies. airlines until they reach the deadline for which they have set themselves. themselves.

Indeed, in a recent newsletter, transport policy expert Robert Poole of the Libertarian Reason Foundation called the development of SAF “the less bad path to zero emissions from airplanes.”

“While there is the potential for hydrogen fuel cells and drastically different aircraft configurations, the time required to develop and test these propulsion and aircraft configurations leaves too little time to replace the fleet of aircraft. ‘current and short-term aircraft and engines,’ Poole wrote. “If the SAF can be developed on an increasingly large scale and aircraft engines and fuel systems are adapted to use the SAF, there is a reasonable chance of reaching the 2050 target. , which has been adopted by American and European aviation players. ”

And the challenge is really much greater than all of that.

The harsh reality is that for most or all of the world’s commercial jets to meet their carbon reduction targets by 2050, carriers really need to start phasing in radically new aircraft designs or, at all. less, airplanes with engines capable of running. largely or fully SAF by 2030.

Indeed, the commercial jets manufactured today – and sold at prices between $ 75 million and $ 300 million each depending on their seating capacity and range – are 25 years old. If airlines are to run all of their planes on 100% SAF fuel by 2050, they really need to start taking delivery of the first such planes between 2025 and 2030. If they don’t, they will be forced by their needs both replace current aircraft reaching the end of their useful life and expand their fleets to meet the growing demand for air travel in order to continue to take delivery of aircraft still designed to fly on kerosene. And they’ll likely have to keep adding new tech planes that are just as old in the 2030s, and maybe even the 2040s.

As a result, these “new” “dirty” – or less green – planes will not reach the end of their economic lifespan by 2050. Airlines would then have to choose between expensive (and impossible to ground) grounding. at the same time replace) assets with a long useful life, or continue to fly them at the cost of not meeting their carbon reduction targets.

And the penalty for missing that goal could be huge. Although airlines have technically imposed their carbon reduction targets for 2050 on themselves, they’ve done it a bit, sort of on the business side, with the gun pointed at them. The European Union, the Canadian government and (only to a lesser extent) the United States government were pressuring them to take big, bold token steps to reduce their carbon emissions. Currently, around 2.5% of global carbon emissions come from commercial aviation and only 1.9% of the global greenhouse gas total. But the percentage of global carbon emissions from commercial aviation is projected to rise to between 5% and 10% by 2050 if airlines do nothing and continue to add planes to their fleets to meet growth. expected from the request.

Equally important, or maybe even more, there is every reason to expect the industry to be able to meet its carbon reduction target – whether that happens by 2050 or a year later. far sooner than it can come up with entirely new aircraft designs, batteries that can reliably power heavy airplanes for hours on end, or engines powered by even more exotic types of energy.

Yet beyond the technological challenges, there is another very important challenge: creating the complex and global supply chain for SAF – plus a global distribution system – almost from scratch.

The sources of various inedible crops and agricultural wastes (grain stalks left over from harvesting, animal fats and parts not consumed by humans) used in the manufacture of SAF will need to be developed and encouraged to grow rapidly. Giant new household waste collection systems (used cooking oil, paper products, food scraps, etc.) for conversion to SAF will need to be created all over the world, and efficiently all at the same time. The huge, abundant, and global distribution facilities needed to handle all the AFS that will be needed in the future will also need to be built in a relatively short time frame.

Of course, none of these challenges would be such a big deal if the world weren’t pushed by environmentally conscious leaders and governments to reduce carbon emissions and other greenhouse gases as quickly as possible. The reality is, however, that such pressures exist, rightly or wrongly. And carriers around the world, and especially those based in North America and Europe, should lead the way in creating a much greener aviation industry.

As a result, time is running out and they are much closer to the associated deadline than most people outside the industry realize.


About Coy Lewallen

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