The International Air Transport Association has pledged to reach net zero emissions by 2050, but it’s a long road ahead before the industry can support the amount of sustainable aviation fuel it would need to achieve that target. 

The international airline industry announced a pledge this month to reach net zero emissions by 2050, a target that will require large-scale decarbonisation and the development of sustainable aviation fuel. 

As international travel slowly resumes following the COVID-19 pandemic, carbon emissions from the sector are expected to soar again. Prior to the pandemic, the global aviation industry accounts for about 2.4% of global greenhouse gas emissions. 

While the Paris Agreement does not explicitly address international aviation emissions, many airline companies have been looking into ways to decarbonise, including investing in hydrogen fuel aircrafts – Aerospace manufacturer Airbus SE is currently building a hydrogen fuel powered commercial aircraft and expecting to enter service by 2035 – and electric planes, to reduce its planet-warming emissions. However, we are still decades away from using these technologies to support long-haul flights. 

Sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) has been receiving some greater attention, but the lack of availability has led to soaring prices, which would mean much higher ticket prices for passengers, and discouraged many companies to transition towards it. 

But to reach the 2050 target, the industry would need to rely heavily on adopting SAF. The International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) estimates we would need about 450bn litres of SAF, or about two-thirds of total fuel consumption, to achieve carbon neutrality in the sector. Current annual SAF production however, is only 100m litres, at the moment. 

For widespread adoption and transition, SAF needs to be cost competitive. Introducing a carbon tax could drive up the cost of conventional jet fuel, encouraging companies to make the switch, or governments could provide tax breaks for those adopting cleaner fuels. 

“[Tax breaks] are the only way we’re going to get it done,” chief executive of Delta Air Lines Ed Bastian said in an interview. “We don’t have the financial viability to pay three to four times today’s cost and the energy producers aren’t going to make this big investment to create this product without knowing they’re going to have a customer.” 

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Britain however, is looking for a different approach. The UK chancellor Rishi Sunak recently said he would increase air passenger duty on long-haul flights while halving taxes on domestic travels. 

Environmental groups and campaigners have criticised the UK government’s plan on how the new aviation tax system helps the country reach its net zero carbon target. 

The controversial announcement comes just days ahead of the crucial COP26 UN climate summit, in which the UK is the host country of. 

“If the government is serious about the environment, it makes little sense to cut air passenger duty on routes where a journey in Britain can already be made by train in under five hours,” Andy Bagnall, director-general of the Rail Delivery Group said to the Financial Times, adding that cutting air passenger duty would an extra 1,000 flights a year. 

It is expected that world leaders and delegates will be discussing and negotiating over ways to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, and decarbonisation targets in the aviation industry are certainly worth incorporating into countries’ climate pledges.