Fueling net zero: Sustainable pathways for aviation

Fueling net zero: Sustainable pathways for aviation

Identifying routes to a more sustainable, net-zero aviation industry is crucial, especially as the sector looks to recover from COVID-19.

Globally, the aviation sector’s commitment to net-zero carbon emissions targets by 2050 was an important first step. The U.K. aviation industry has since launched its own interim decarbonization targets. Other countries have followed suit.

Our report for ATAG Waypoint 2050 offers a potential pathway for deploying enough sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) for aviation to meet its climate ambitions. The transition to SAF represents a defining moment for the industry, as it looks to reshape its future.

A roadmap for producing the fuel the industry needs

Sustainable aviation fuels, along with technological and operational improvements, will be key to meeting the global aviation industry’s net-zero ambitions. Our report investigates the pathways for the aviation industry to achieve this, considering the feedstocks, technologies, and investment required.

The hydroprocessed esters and fatty acids (HEFA) pathway is currently the most popular form of SAF production. We believe that due to feedstock constraints, future production will increasingly use other pathways. The American Society of Testing and Material has certified seven different pathways for SAF production, and our expectations are that the alcohol-to-jet (ATJ) and Fischer-Tropsch (FT) pathways will drive the majority of incremental production over the next two decades.

The ATJ and FT pathways are more complex and need more investment to build sophisticated infrastructure. But they also can use far more affordable and available feedstocks, from both agricultural and municipal wastes. It’s an exciting time, with the first commercial production facilities using these two pathways currently going through commissioning and we’ll start seeing fuel deliveries this year.

We believe that by 2050 the average price of SAF, including the value of the carbon reduction, will be increasingly within the historical cost range of fossil fuels. As incentives develop, we also expect to see improvements in the sustainability of the fuels, with improved technologies allowing access to more sustainable feedstocks—and improvements across green hydrogen, renewable electricity, regenerative agriculture, carbon capture, and many other areas all contributing.

It may even be possible for the renewable fuel innovations to allow the aviation sector to move beyond net-zero carbon to carbon negative. There are also significant ancillary benefits from SAF, ranging from reduced sulfur dioxide and particle emissions when SAF is combusted to improved waste management as the feedstocks are collected.

Transforming the global energy production landscape

Sustainable fuel production for aviation offers huge potential for jobs and infrastructure creation. Our report estimates that fully decarbonizing aviation will require up to 7,000 renewable fuel refineries by 2050. Because the SAF production industry will need to be close to feedstock supply, these refineries will be in almost every country. This is a very different scenario to current oil and gas production and will improve energy security, independence, and resilience for many nations.

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Deploying sufficient sustainable aviation fuel to meet climate ambitions
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This will take investment—our estimate is anything up to 1,500 billion US dollars. This is around 6% of historical annual oil and gas capital expenditure. We’ll see increasing investment as more specialized producers join the industry, and existing fossil fuel infrastructure is retrofitted. The current trend of investors looking to decarbonize their portfolios will also only increase, driving investment upwards.

The result? A growing SAF production industry employing an estimated 13.7 million people and supporting a more sustainable, net-zero aviation industry.

To discover more of our findings and insights about how to create the sustainable fuels the aviation industry needs to achieve net zero, read the full report.

Meet the author
  1. Alastair Blanshard, Director, Sustainable Aviation

    Alastair leads the sustainable aviation team at ICF, supporting companies and governments across the global industry to reduce the environmental impact from aviation.  View bio

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