Key Points:

  • Airline executives express skepticism and call for pragmatism regarding the aviation industry’s 2050 carbon-neutral goals due to challenges with SAF.

  • The reality check about SAF includes issues related to its scarcity, cost, production challenges, and its demand on natural resources.

  • Despite reservations, airline leaders maintain that with proper scaling, technology, and government incentives, 2050 targets remain within reach.

Sustainable Aviation Fuel: Navigating Between Ambition and Reality

MONTREAL — The airline industry's ardent pursuit of a carbon-neutral future by 2050, spotlighting sustainable aviation fuel (SAF) as a key catalyst, encountered a reality check during recent global meetings. Despite the previous fervor, the pragmatic and somewhat skeptical stance by industry leaders underscores the tangible challenges lying on the path toward extensively adopting SAF. High costs, scarcity, and significant demands on land and natural resources are among the roadblocks hindering its prolific use.

At the World Aviation Festival in Lisbon, aviation executives, including Emirates President Tim Clark, underscored the necessity for a grounded perspective on reaching the industry's eco-friendly milestones. This sentiment will echo once more at the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) World Sustainability Symposium in Madrid, where SAF's viability will be scrutinized.

Clark emphasized caution, asserting, “Avoid delusions regarding our targets. Holding on to overly optimistic timelines can instigate substantial dysfunctionality.”

Similarly, IAG CEO Luis Gallego and Ryanair DAC’s CEO Eddie Wilson echoed the lengthy and costly journey toward an emission-free aviation sector. Gallego expressed that while objectives are aspirational, the clear roadmap to achieving them is elusive. He also hinted at potential in eSAF, a synthetic fuel born from renewable energy sources like solar and wind, despite its current scalability challenges.

However, Deutsche Lufthansa AG CEO Carsten Spohr highlighted a substantial drawback of eSAF: its demanding energy production requirements, which, in theory, would devour half of Germany's total electricity output to fuel its fleet.

Despite technology being in its infancy, making up a mere 0.15% of the global jet fuel supply according to IATA, and the industry grappling with how to amplify its production, executives believe that the 2050 targets are plausible. Yet, Paul Griffiths, CEO of Dubai Airports, emphasized the scale of challenges related to SAF production, including substantial feedstock and freshwater requirements, and the consequential pricing issues.

While pinpointing the onus to upscale and finance technology for a less polluting sector is not inherently the airlines’ responsibility, Clark highlighted that the trillions of dollars required to decarbonize will have to be found. On the other hand, IATA Director General Willie Walsh advocated for enhanced governmental incentives to promote SAF use, something he noticed materializing in the US but lagging in Europe due to the absence of a coherent policy framework.

Walsh criticized Europe’s approach to SAF adoption in Lisbon, stating, “Europe has adopted a stance where they can force people into using SAF. To me, that’s impractical. Airlines have utilized every available drop of SAF, notwithstanding the steep cost.” The statement underlines the industry’s willingness yet draws attention to the palpable hurdles in the pursuit of green aviation.