The global airline industry is rapidly recovering from the unprecedented pause imposed by COVID-19.
In some parts of the world, like the Middle East, airlines are even expanding rapidly, far beyond pre-pandemic levels.
But how will the industry continue to grow while doing its fair share on climate change? Unless global aviation changes course, its greenhouse gas emissions are projected to cause about 0.1℃ of total global warming by 2050.
Sustainable aviation fuels as the preferred solution
So-called “sustainable aviation fuels” are being promoted by the aviation and energy industries as the preferred solution. These fuels can be made from organic matter like plants (also known as biomass), waste like used cooking oil, and synthetic kerosene.
However, as our new research published in Science of The Total Environment shows, sustainable aviation fuel is not a panacea. Even if the industry could make the switch, there isn’t enough land or renewable energy potential on Earth to produce all the sustainable fuels airlines need.
Commitments and plans of the aviation industry
In 2021, the International Air Transport Association published a plan for airlines to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Individual airlines have made similar commitments, but there are very few low-carbon alternatives to traditional fossil fuel for jets. That makes reducing emissions from the aviation sector extremely difficult. Two options, batteries and liquid hydrogen, face significant challenges. For example, neither is suitable for long-haul flights. That’s why the industry is turning to sustainable aviation fuels.
Recent research set out to address the question of the viability of sustainable aviation fuels. Twelve “roadmaps” or plans to decarbonise the global aviation industry, published by industry, external organizations and academics, were analysed.
Environmental and emissions challenges
The production of sustainable aviation fuels also generates greenhouse gas emissions and raises environmental concerns. Growing biocrops requires the use of emissions-intensive fertilizers and machinery, and deforestation of vast tracts of rainforest to make way for crops used in biofuels exacerbates the problem.
The need for a global transition
The transition towards a more sustainable aviation cannot be considered in isolation. It is just one part of a larger change that needs to occur throughout the global energy system. Instead of relying exclusively on sustainable aviation fuels, private and government investment should be directed towards lower carbon forms of transport, such as rail. Likewise, a change of mentality is required on the part of the traveling public in terms of the frequency and distance of trips.