The aviation industry can hit emissions goals, but new fuels need to take flight first

Aviation is an industry that is difficult to decarbonize. Strict operating and safety requirements limit what technology can be used. Equipment has a long lifespan, so today’s aircraft will continue to fly in 2050. This means that technological advances need to be accelerated to reduce emissions in the future.

“If you want to decarbonize aviation, you have to start now,” says Lynette Drey, principal research fellow at University College London.

Keeping emissions low enough to stay below 2 ° C of warming means reducing annual aviation emissions by almost half of current estimates by 2050 – a daunting task for the industry, which is expected to grow rapidly over the next few decades. Brandon Graver, a senior aviation researcher at ICCT and one of the authors of the report, says that in order for the industry to reach that goal, its emissions need to peak and start declining by 2030. And to limit warming to 1.75 C, emissions will begin to decline by 2025.

In ICCT analysis, about 60% of emissions reductions are estimated to come from low carbon fuels.

But new fuels have a long way to go to reach that kind of effect. Alternative jet fuel supply represents about 0.05% of total fuel supply in 2020. Given the 2018 figures, a year-round supply of non-fossil fuels will power global aviation for about 10 minutes.

Even in the most conservative estimates, to maintain demand in 2050, alternative fuel supplies will need to increase almost 3,000 times beyond 2020 levels.

The small amount of commercial alternative fuel produced today is largely derived from waste fat, oil and grease. But the supply of this waste oil is limited, so more fuel will need to come from other sources.

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