Decarbonizing air transport: Sustainable aviation fuels are vital for growth

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Plane at a tarmac. The challenge is to find ways for air transport to grow more sustainably and to contribute even more to the economic and social development of countries.

Download our latest report: The Role of Sustainable Aviation Fuels in Decarbonizing Air Transport

Want to learn more about transport decarbonization? Don't miss our #MovingtoZero series.

Transport currently generates 20 percent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. That’s a huge number. Reducing the GHG emissions produced by transport is a big challenge, but by no means an impossible one.  Many tools already exist to reverse rising transport emissions—policies, infrastructure investments, and new technologies. The priority now is matching the tools to local needs. 

The World Bank is working on ways to bring the benefits of movement—so that people can get where they want to go, goods can move quickly and efficiently to markets where they are needed—while taking the carbon out of transport.  The air transport sector is a vital part of economic growth and development, and as demand for air travel continues to grow, the decarbonization of aviation is key to achieving climate goals by mid-century.

In a conversation with Megersa Abera Abate, a Transport Economist, and Charles E. Schlumberger, a Lead Air Transport Specialist, both at the World Bank, we learn about sustainable ways to prepare for the coming rise in global air travel. You can read our interview with Megersa and Charles below, and find out more in the recent publication The Role of Sustainable Aviation Fuels in Decarbonizing Air Transport

Demand for air transport is growing. How do we make it greener?

Schlumberger: The big focus is on decarbonizing air transport to get to net zero emissions by the year 2050. That sounds like a long time from now, but it really isn’t. It is notable that aviation is the first industry in the world that has a global commitment and a global program to decarbonize through the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA). It is a trading scheme for offsetting aviation emissions, so if you emit more than certain baseline emissions, you have to buy the rights or a permit to offset the extra. 

But to reach net zero, we need more than an emissions trading scheme. We are also going to need Sustainable Aviation Fuels, or SAF. These are biofuels, made from different feedstocks such as crops, municipal waste, or others. Many SAF are already certified for use in existing airplanes, blended up to 50 percent with conventional jet fuel.

Abate: SAF is the main way to decarbonize this sector, in addition to the offsets. Our analysis shows that SAF could bring 58 percent emission reductions in 2050 if it is scaled up significantly. This fuel is produced from bio sources, but there’s a focus now on synthetic fuels, because of sustainability and scalability issues with bio sources—there just aren’t enough of them and there’s a lot of demand. 

Other areas of interest for decarbonizing air transport are improving air transport organization, airline efficiency, and airport operations; innovations in aircraft design and propulsion technology. Combined with SAF, these options could reduce emissions up to 85 percent in 2050. 

What needs to happen to get SAF into airplanes?

Abate: SAF is present in the industry now, but only in very select places, and meets less than 0.1 percent of jet fuel demand. That’s very small. Most of these SAF flights are in the U.S., especially to California. California has stronger regulations and incentives when it comes to emissions, so SAF producers in the U.S. mostly supply their fuels to airports in California. But a growing number of countries are designing policies that pave the way for SAF production scale-up and use.

Schlumberger: The biggest challenge is scale up. There’s a lot of demand. People want to fly, airlines want to buy SAF. In fact, some carriers already offer the option to pay for SAF for your journey when you buy your ticket. 

Abate: Incentives and mandates will be key. Scale up will require mandating feedstock for aviation, but right now there’s a struggle for green fuels between road transport and shipping. The big issue right now is how we can prioritize aviation when it comes to production of biofuels. This needs to be addressed to scale up SAF. And scaling up SAF production will help address the other challenge, like price. Today, SAF is two to five times more expensive than traditional jet fuel.

What are the next steps in making air travel more sustainable? 

Abate: Technology transfer will help developing countries, but I think incentives and mandates are the main things. Aviation is small, now, in terms of emissions, but by mid-century it is going to be one of the biggest emitters globally; that’s why we need to address decarbonization of air transport now.   But, as of yet, there is no clear plan. 

Schlumberger: The industry is going ahead with SAF. For airlines thirty or twenty years ago, safety was the concern. Now it is the environment. The air industry is very powerful, it is worth billions, tourism is an enormous industry, one of the biggest in the world, so airlines are moving ahead. Governments and development partners are increasingly looking into the potential of SAF. What we at the World Bank can do is facilitation and focusing on our client countries.

What about developing countries? How can they benefit from and participate in the value chain around SAF?

Abate: There are a lot of developing counties in the world that might produce SAF, like India, Brazil, and South Africa. India is going to be one of the biggest aviation markets in the world in the coming years. But SAF has to be local, it needs to be produced everywhere so it can be used everywhere. SAF can meet much of the projected demand for jet fuel and reverse the upward trajectory of air transport emissions, but only if production expands beyond OECD countries. This will also create more green corridors for OECD-based airlines, which will be facing a growing number of SAF mandates.

Schlumberger: And as the world’s citizens become increasingly climate-conscious, offering flights that are greener, that use SAF, can be a major competitive advantage for our client countries who rely on air transport and international tourism for significant economic activity.

This conversation is about decarbonizing transportation. At the World Bank, we recognize that many of our client countries need aviation—flying is important for development. Countries want this sector to grow because it connects them with economic activities and human capital beyond their borders. So, our challenge is to find ways for air transport to grow more sustainably and to contribute even more to the economic and social development of our client countries. And that’s what makes SAF so interesting. It isn’t simply that it greens the sector, but it offers production opportunities in developing countries, creating jobs and opening up new opportunities for development. 

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