MIAMI – The International Air Transport Association (IATA) said at its annual general meeting that it is now aiming for net net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a daring but necessary objective in the face of global warming, according to IATA CEO Willie Walsh.

However, by joining the Paris Climate Agreement’s and the European Union’s aims, IATA does not believe that a huge decrease in emissions will necessarily mean a massive reduction in operations. Quite the reverse, in fact.

Sebastian Mikosz, IATA vice president in charge of environmental affairs and sustainable development, said, “For us, the main target is to continue growing, because it’s not the traffic that is the enemy, it’s the emissions.”

Despite the fact that air travel has experienced a significant decline as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, with a drop from 4.5 billion travelers in 2019 to 1.8 billion in 2020, IATA predicts that by 2050, more than 10 billion flights will be conducted annually.

Image: Air bp

SAF: The Best Option

According to IATA, the aviation industry currently emits 900 million tons of CO2 each year. If nothing is done to lower the carbon footprint of the sector, it will climb to 1.8 billion tons by 2050.

That means 21.2 billion tons of CO2 will be discharged into the atmosphere during the next 30 years. Reducing this level to attain net-zero emissions by 2050 will be a huge technological challenge, according to IATA, costing businesses roughly US$1.55tn.

The key option, according to IATA, is to adopt sustainable aviation fuels (SAF), which would get the sector 65% of the way to its objective.

These fuels, which can be generated from biomass, waste oils, or even carbon capture in the future, have the advantage of being able to be utilized directly in existing aircraft that are intended to run on 50% kerosene mixes. According to IATA, such fuel sources can lower CO2 emissions by 80 percent during their whole life cycle when compared to kerosene.

Although Airbus and Boeing have stated that their fleets will be able to fly entirely on SAF by 2030, SAF now contributes for less than 0.1% of all aviation fuel.

Sustainable aviation fuels (SAF) account for less than 0.1 percent of aviation fuel currently used. Photo: Eric Piermont / AFP

SAF Supply is Key

The infrastructure for producing SAFs is being built in the United States and Europe, but it is still in its early stages, and the cheapest fuel produced costs four times more than kerosene, a fossil fuel.

“The problem is the capacity and the supply,” said Mikosz, who said the goal was “to grow to 450 billion liters of SAF compared to 100 million liters. We need to multiply our supply by 10,000%.”

IATA, on the other hand, believes that the aircraft industry’s promised technological advancements, particularly new electric or hydrogen planes like those Airbus is planning for 2035, are not yet a sure bet for the sector to rely on in order to “decarbonize” beyond 13 percent by 2050.

“If those technologies do not deliver what we need by 2050… we can compensate it through SAF,” said Mikosz.

Featured image: Alaska Airlines biofuels. Photo: Alaska Airlines. Article sources: IATA,