One of the most significant hurdles the aviation industry faces today is finding methods to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint. Currently, the aviation industry represents 2% of the globe’s human-induced carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Consequently, Shell estimates that if little to no action is taken, aviation could represent up to 22% of all global CO2 emissions by 2050, especially as other sectors decarbonize. The question of how to slow and stop emissions looms over the industry. The task of decarbonization seems daunting, but many industry experts theorize that aviation is well-poised for the challenge.

“Aviation is a highly concentrated industry, meaning that a relatively small number of manufacturers, airlines, and airports have a large share of their respective markets. This concentration of market share and influence means decisions can be made relatively quickly and have a global impact,” Shell states. However, industry leaders must also recognize that the sector’s long investment horizons and fleet renewal cycles emphasize that the time to act is now!

“Decarbonising Aviation: Cleared for Takeoff” is a recent joint report by Shell and Deloitte documenting views from various aviation industry leaders on how the industry can accelerate the move to full decarbonization. The report describes developing efforts and technologies that are integral to decarbonization. The path to decarbonization is necessary for a healthy aviation industry – here are some steps the industry is taking and how companies are overcoming any accompanying hurdles.

1) Advancing Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF)

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) is a leading development for decarbonization in the aviation industry. Traditional jet fossil fuel is incredibly efficient with energy in relation to weight. This efficiency has enabled the rise of commercial flight, and up until recently, this quality was unmatched. Sustainable aviation fuel is chemically similar to traditional fossil fuels used for jets and can be produced from sustainable feedstock. SAFs are far more economical with emissions, creating 80% fewer emissions than conventional jet fuel.

One of the major appeals of sustainable aviation fuel is its flexibility in implementation. Any aircraft certified for using the current specification of jet fuel can use SAF. SAFs can be added to the existing refueling framework with no modifications to vehicles necessary. This quality makes fuel adoption easier for companies, as SAFs can even be blended up to a 50/50 mix with traditional jet fuel.

Although current costs of SAF are prohibitively high (especially for exclusive use), many companies such as Twelve are developing SAFs with funding from major industry figures like the US Air Force, Shell, and BP. The technology only continues to grow in its potential, and the technical and commercial benefits of sustainable aviation fuels show that fuel efficiency and environmental responsibility are not mutually exclusive!

2) Improving Carbon Offsetting

Depending on your preferred airlines, you may have been recently asked to participate in some sort of carbon offsetting. Carbon offsetting is a semi-recent initiative from the aviation industry to gather funding for environmental causes like reforestation and SAF development to balance their carbon footprint. This initiative may come in a voluntary tax from individual consumers or company-sided programs and investments. Carbon offsetting is notable because it is the industry’s “rapid response” to growing decarbonization needs. Offsetting programs are also effectively used as vehicles to quickly inform customers about decarbonization in general.

Offsets may have been helpful in the early stages of the decarbonization effort (there are over 200 current offsetting programs right now!). Still, there are many steps to take forward if offsetting is to have a long-lasting impact! Many carbon offsetting initiatives put the onus of recovery on the average consumer. Concerns about quality, transparency, and communications lead to limited uptake on the consumer end. Worries about the usefulness of carbon offsetting funds are not uncommon, and it is also challenging to convince occasional flyers to add on costs to their expensive flight. Companies respond to consumer concerns by putting carbon offsetting into their budget, better conveying environmental results and efforts, and offering incentives for consumers to participate.

3) Researching Alternative Energy Sources (Hydrogen and Electric) 

Shell states that the development of SAF can spur and accelerate the growth of alternative technologies such as batteries and hydrogen-based power. These energy sources have been particularly enticing as they can theoretically create the possibility of complete neutrality in emissions!

Hydrogen power works by combusting low-emission hydrogen or converting it through fuel cell technology. A main draw of hydrogen is its fuel efficiency. Hydrogen packs three times as much energy per weight as traditional jet fuel when it comes to flight. Although hydrogen in its current state is costly with limited supply, continued research and investment will drive the cost of harvesting lower.

Battery power works by utilizing propulsion through green electricity. However, the size and weight of batteries make the technology ideal for short-haul flights. NASA, in particular, has been at the front of battery-powered aircraft research. Delivery companies like DHL have explored using electric aircraft for regional deliveries.

While the prospect of alternative energy sources is attractive, they do not drop into the aviation framework as seamlessly as SAFs do, so the integration of fuel like hydrogen may hinge on the prior integration of SAFs. Regardless, the development of electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft continues to be researched heavily. Startups such as Hybrid Air Vehicles are also working on integrating this technology with existing lighter-than-air aircraft technology! The dawn of these alternative energy sources may come sooner than later, with companies projecting the launch of electric airliners as soon as 2025.

Despite the hurdles that come with developing alternative energy sources, the outlook is still generally positive. Alternative energy needs offer a method of collaboration between aviation and other industries like the automotive and power sectors. For short-haul flights specifically, one Shell interviewee estimated that battery-electric aircraft will be seen in the commuter space as soon as 2040! Many airlines and airports also are being designed with future terminal expansion into these areas in mind.

If you’re wondering how hydrogen and electric energy’s development prospects differ from each other, check out this in-depth comparison.

4) Encouraging Cultural and Behavioral Shifts

Although population growth and demand will likely outpace consumer-side behavioral shifts in commercial air, consumers and companies need to vocalize support of decarbonization and other green efforts. Movements towards decarbonization are often not supported on a local regulation level. Corporate efforts and technological advances alone will not contribute to decarbonization without public and political will. A solid shift towards decarbonization and other environmental efforts will incentivize companies to invest in greener plans.

“Long‐term customer demand, enabled by recognition mechanisms and differentiated propositions, will play a fundamental role in providing the funding and incentives for airlines to invest in lowering their emissions,” Shell writes.

Although the path to decarbonization has many hurdles, the end goal is essential and attainable. Shell estimates that the aviation sector can achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 but emphasizes that because of the long-term nature of fleet renewal and investment cycles, action must start immediately.