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Aviation will be one of the toughest sectors to decarbonize, as weight, distance and safety concerns limit the alternative fuel options compared with other types of transport

Recent protests by climate action group Extinction Rebellion and the well- documented Atlantic voyages of Greta Thunberg have put aviation in the spotlight for its environmental impact and the behavior of more affluent sectors of society.

Air travel has become increasingly affordable, competing with other modes of transportation and giving society more choice on where it wants to live, work or go on holiday. More than 100 million people enter the middle class every year, taking their first flights and adding to the growing demand for air travel.

Decarbonizing air transportation is incredibly challenging. The fuel supply chain is strictly governed by Aviation Fuel Quality Control Procedures, ensuring that fuels put in our planes meet high standards to ensure safety. Alternative sources of energy, such as batteries or hydrogen, have great limitations because of weight and  safety concerns, let alone the supply chains required. As such, the industry has remained focused and committed to improving aircraft efficiency, meaning demand will remain sticky for jet fuel for at least the next 50 years.

Given this conundrum, the industry has increasingly focused on carbon offsets or new net-zero emission “drop-in” fuels as solutions to reduce the impact of aviation on the planet.

Carbon offsets are relatively cheap, but only pass the problem of aviation emissions to someone else, while NZE fuels are limited in volume and prohibitive in cost. Offsets may help to ease flyers’ consciences, but raising the cost of fuel through increased use of NZE options would provide a greater economic incentive to force consumer choice. In reality, the most effective way to reduce emissions is to eliminate demand – limiting air freight (and demand for perishable goods with high ton-miles) and banning some short-haul flights.

Aviation remains a very effective mode of transportation that supports economic development and growth. As Thunberg’s recent voyage illustrated, alternatives are difficult. Ironically, the carbon savings from her sailboat journey to Madrid were effectively offset by crew members taking trans- Atlantic flights to the US so they could help sail the boat back to Europe.

Emissions impact of aviation

While emissions from aviation make up a comparatively small share of total global greenhouse gas emissions, they are also growing faster than any other sector in transportation. S&P Global Platts Analytics estimates aviation emissions currently make up just 3% of global energy CO2 emissions and 11% of emissions from transport. But according to our Scenario Planning Service World Energy Demand Model forecasts, they are also expected to rise 2-3% annually through 2040, meaning aviation’s share of total CO2 emissions will double.

Aviation growth will be strongest in the developing world, where the rise of the middle class will lead to increased air travel demand, partly negating other efficiency gains.

This growth in aviation demand is focusing attention on the policies and technologies needed to reduce the sector’s emissions. Unlike most other sectors, aviation CO2 emissions are not directly covered by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 2015 Paris Agreement, but are instead in the International Civil Aviation Organization’s purview. Following years of negotiations, in 2016, ICAO agreed to adopt the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation program. CORSIA will require individual aircraft operators to submit carbon offsets to cover the increases in aviation emissions from international flights from 2019-20 levels. Voluntary compliance will begin in 2021, with mandatory participation not coming until 2027.

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