Kevin Soubly, Lauren Uppink World Economic Forum
Decarbonising aviation requires a transition to sustainable fuel. Here’s how governments can help.
May 20, 2021
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  • Although the devastating COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a drastic drop in air travel and aviation emissions, air travel is expected to soon return to pre-pandemic levels and beyond. Public health responses will enable a return to freedom of travel and personal mobility over the next several years, and airplanes will return to the skies and continue to facilitate the personal and economic benefits provided by the aviation industry.

    At pre-pandemic levels, aviation was responsible for 2-3% of overall global emissions – with an even greater climatic impact when including non-CO2 factors like nitrogen oxide and contrails. Existing forecasts from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) still anticipate significant growth in air travel throughout the 2020s, underscoring the need for aviation’s energy transition.

    Yet the emissions-reducing technologies needed for this transition are still not at scale. Even if travel continues at reduced levels, the industry’s emissions profile is not tracking to global emissions reduction goals.

    Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), derived from renewable sources ranging from household waste to industrial CO2 emissions, are an indispensable technology for the sector to reach its sustainability goals. SAF technologies currently deployed can deliver emissions savings of up to 80% vs conventional fossil jet fuel – with other SAF technologies in development reaching 100% lifecycle emissions reductions.

    The aviation industry itself has made significant investments in energy efficiencies and in next-gen fuels like SAF, but the deployment challenges are complex, systemic and expensive; supporting regulatory frameworks and public financing mechanisms are required to move the needle. Incremental improvements are no longer able to achieve necessary emissions reductions and both political leadership and smart policies are required to reach a tipping point in scaling sustainable aviation fuel.

    Political leadership needed

    Despite the immediate crises of the global pandemic, industry and governments alike recognize the necessity for long-term planning to avoid the devastating potential of the slow burn disaster of climate change. Implementing a systems-thinking perspective over reactionary policies and short-term frameworks is challenging, and transitioning a “hard-to-abate” sector like aviation is admittedly not easy. Public-private collaboration across national borders are required to achieve lasting change.

    The UN’s International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), as ‘the global forum of States for international civil aviation,” adopted the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) scheme in 2016, marking an inflection point in international aviation. CORSIA is not perfect, but ICAO’s work sets the overarching policy framework for the aviation industry. By setting an ambition of carbon neutral growth for aviation, the agreement was an important and necessary step.

    Progressive actions by individual governments – whether on sustainable aviation fuel or other environmental policies – is where real change happens.

    Still, individual states themselves possess the power and responsibility for both designing and implementing a long-term vision for decarbonisation and policies to reach those goals. Progressive actions by individual governments – whether on sustainable aviation fuel or other environmental policies – is where real change happens.

    Regulatory harmonization is of course essential to enable efficient operations and technology deployment, especially in an international sector like aviation. But in supporting sustainable aviation fuel, where available feedstock and energy sources vary significantly by geography, it remains important that each market develop market-appropriate policies.Volume 90% 

    Looking forward

    In recognition of this responsibility, cabinet Ministers from Kenya, the Netherlands, the United Arab Emirates, and the United Kingdom on Wednesday launched the Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) Ambassadors group, working with and advising the World Economic Forum’s broader Clean Skies for Tomorrow (CST) initiative. As a CST advisory partner, ICAO’s Secretary General Dr. Fang Liu also joined the launch to provide guidance and support. Representatives from Singapore attended in an Observer capacity.

    Chaired by the United Kingdom in its role as the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP26) president, these four founding governments have committed to lead by example by both innovating and implementing new policy ideas to support scaling SAF.

    The CST coalition serves as a global mechanism for business executives and public leaders from across the aviation value-chain to facilitate aviation’s sustainable energy transition with a special focus on SAF. The SAF Ambassadors group will partner with existing coalition members to develop and deploy policy solutions and drive both state and region-level ambition.

    Robert Courts, UK Aviation Minister and an SAF ambassador noted the importance of collaborations such as these to bringing practical, implementable policy proposals to COP26. Said Courts: “Sustainable Aviation Fuels hold enormous potential – offering significant emissions savings and supporting the creation of thousands of new jobs worldwide. With COP26 around the corner it’s important that we seize these opportunities and in our role as SAF Ambassadors we’ll be leading the charge to promote the take up of these vital fuels worldwide.”

    Christoph Wolff, Head of Mobility at the World Economic Forum, agreed: “The Forum’s Clean Skies for Tomorrow coalition provides a leading example for international cooperation between industry and public sectors in enabling the global aviation industry to achieve carbon-neutral flying.”

    Wednesday’s Ministerial meeting marks the first in a series of high-level discussions and policy development that will occur over the next six months and culminate in a public launch of SAF-supportive policy measures during COP26.

    These meetings and collaborations are key steps to creating new solutions and policy approaches. With these in place, the industry will have the support it needs to speed its energy transition and more sustainably connect the world’s societies and economies.