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Geared for take-off

Geared for take-off

Aviation talks a big game about reaching net zero. But to actually achieve it, the industry and customers face some tough choices.

Sustainable aviation is, for now, a contradiction in terms. Air travel accounts for less than 3 per cent of global emissions but its share is rising fast. On current trends it could account for 20 per cent by 2050, and CO2 per passenger mile is the highest for any form of transport.

Nothing else comes close. Lifting humans and cargo off the ground is an energy intensive business. It needs lightweight, energy-dense fuel and jet fuel is roughly 50 times more energy-dense than lithium-ion batteries.

One result is that when Cop26 convenes next month in Glasgow, aviation will be in the dock because the delegates will have burned thousands of tonnes of kerosene to be there. 

With that in mind the International Air Transport Association (IATA) pledged last week to get to net zero by 2050 even though its director, Willie Walsh, admits the sector doesn’t yet have a fully thought-through plan to make it happen. IATA speaks for all the world’s airlines, and their ambition seems to be fuelled by three factors:

  • concern about their reputations as polluters;
  • fear of regulation and tax – many airlines depend on a loophole that’s kept fuel tax-free on international flights since 1944;
  • a particular anxiety to avoid new taxes because by the end of this year Covid will have cost the sector $200 billion.

The airlines’ decision was “momentous”, Walsh said. Despite not having “a clear solution in the short term,” he insisted the airlines would find ways to abate 1.8 gigatons of carbon a year by 2050. In that year the industry is projected to fly 10 billion people – two billion more than the entire current population of the planet – and it now says it will do this with net zero emissions.

There are two responses to this claim. One is that it’s for the birds; the other that it’s doable but only with tremendous upheaval. “It will mean a huge change in political will and a collective effort by all industry players, as well as continuous technological innovation and infrastructure investment,” says Paloma Zapata, CEO of Sustainable Travel International. 

The options:

  • Batteries. These are too heavy for anything but short-haul flights for very small numbers of passengers. An Israeli company hopes to have up to nine people flying 800-km hops by next year, but that’s about the extent of current battery ambition.
  • Hydrogen. This holds more energy than kerosene per unit of weight but not per unit of volume because it’s very hard to store. Hydrogen fuel cells have been used to power experimental light planes but burning hydrogen in adapted turbofan engines is Airbus’s big bet for the future of commercial flight. It plans to start building an H2-powered product line by 2027 and to have green H2-powered planes in business by 2035. They may look similar from the outside but they’ll still have to be comprehensively redesigned to hold hydrogen either under intense pressure or liquified at minus 253 C. 
  • Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF). This derives from biomass and waste rather than fossils. It can be refined like kerosene and substituted for it or mixed with it, but for now it’s eight times as expensive and hard to find. It accounts for 0.1 per cent of all the jet fuel in the world. Many airlines and energy companies are nonetheless betting big on SAF in hopes of economies of scale and carbon savings of up to 75 per cent.

Virgin and Delta hope to be burning 10 per cent SAF by 2030. Shell hopes to produce 2 million tonnes of it by 2025 – but even this is modest. Total global jet fuel consumption in 2019 was 330 million tonnes, and once Covid’s in the rear view mirror the industry expects to expand quickly. If SAF production is to keep pace this could mean large-scale land use change to grow feedstock crops for biomass-based fuel, with “potential environmental risks… such as the loss of biodiversity and carbon sinks,” Zapata says. 

Aviation will therefore need to expand another carbon mitigation strategy that it’s already using – offsets. It has a system in place, called Corsia, and little choice but to make it work despite inevitable accusations of greenwash, and costs which it will have to pass on to passengers. 

“It may be that there is a slight air ticket premium,” Adair Turner of the Energy Transitions Commission tells the Economist. “I think we should simply pay it. I think we should say this is what we have to pay in order to have zero carbon flight.”

Brace, brace. The end of cheap flying is nigh.

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Science and tech

Lessons for net zero
Earlier this year, Microsoft paid to remove 1.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in the largest procurement of CO2 removal to date. But as Microsoft staff note in Nature, getting there wasn’t easy. First, viable solutions were hard to come by: the tech giant received proposals for removal totalling 154 megatonnes of CO2, but only 2 megatonnes’ worth met Microsoft’s criteria. Second, the aim was often misunderstood: a fifth of proposals were rejected because they focused on avoiding new emissions rather than actually removing CO2 from the atmosphere. Third, markets currently fail to distinguish between short-term CO2 storage in plants and soil and more expensive, long-term storage in rock. Pricing on a per-tonne basis therefore encourages the purchase of temporary, low-quality carbon offsets. The upshot: if companies and governments are serious about removing carbon from the air, they’ll need to agree on some consistent standards. Cop26 should be the place to start putting them on paper.

Engagement and activism

The other oil
Palm oil executives have been caught on camera appearing to admit to human rights abuses and widespread deforestation in Papua New Guinea. In an undercover sting by investigators at Global Witness, representatives of Malaysian companies operating in PNG describe bribing officials and politicians for logging permits, paying police to brutalise villagers, using child labour and participating in an apparent tax evasion scheme. Their palm products were found in the supply chains of major multinationals including Colgate-Palmolive, Kellogg’s and Nestlé. The planetary and human rights abuses of palm oil companies are nothing new, but this investigation does mark another fragile frontier. PNG is located on the island of New Guinea – home to the world’s third-largest remaining rainforest and at least five per cent of all species on Earth. In Malaysia, unchecked deforestation in the 2000s led to the country losing 14 per cent of its forest in 12 years – most of it to palm plantations. PNG can’t be left to go the same way.


Sin stocks
Publicly traded companies are responsible for 40 per cent of all climate-warming emissions, according to a report from Generation Investment Management. After accounting for Scope 3 emissions from customers and supply chains, the report found that listed companies have emitted roughly twice as much carbon dioxide as previously estimated. The report also underscores the role that shareholder voting can play in achieving net zero. Already this year, Shell, Exxon, bp, Chevron and BHP have faced AGM rebellions by activist investors seeking to curtail their emissions and refashion climate goals. But the findings show it’s not just the biggest emitters who deserve scrutiny – the importance of 10,000 other listed companies has been underplayed. To find out which UK companies are taking responsibility for emissions – and which aren’t – join us this Thursday at the Tortoise Responsible Business Summit as we reveal our annual ranking of the FTSE100.


Drill baby, just a bit more
To go on financing oil and gas exploration, or not? That is the question facing big banks as Cop draws near. They are under pressure from Mark Carney, former governor of the Bank of England, to stop, but many are reluctant and are finding support for their position in an unlikely place: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which pulls together climate research for the UN and the Cop process. The IPCC’s modelling doesn’t preclude continued oil and gas exploration, which most oil majors say is vital to finance their transitions to greener energy sources. Paradoxically, the reverse is true of the International Energy Agency (IEA), which was set up as an organisation of oil-producer countries but in its latest report ruled out further oil and gas exploration from this year if members were serious about limiting warming to 1.5 degrees. Some legacy energy people have concluded from that report that the IEA has been captured by the climate lobby. One person involved in pre-Cop talks with banks tells the FT (£) the IEA vision of no more exploration is a “fairytale”. There’s another way of looking at this, which is to say the IPCC has been captured by oil and gas footdraggers.. 

Do share this around, and let us know what you think of it.

Thanks for reading.

Giles Whittell

Barney Macintyre


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