New report outlines path to net-zero aviation in 2050


New analysis outlines credible paths for the air transport sector to reach its updated long-term climate goal to hit net-zero carbon emissions in 2050. A combination of new technology, improvements in operations and infrastructure and a shift to sustainable aviation fuels can help get the sector close to decarbonisation in 2050, with residual emissions being mitigated through market-based instruments such as carbon removal.

Haldane Dodd, Acting Executive Director of the Air Transport Action Group said: “Comprehensive analysis shows that despite the goal being challenging, there are credible paths for global civil aviation to reach net-zero carbon by 2050. The Waypoint 2050 report shows several scenarios, focusing on new technology options such as electric and hydrogen aircraft for the short-haul fleet, to a complete shift to sustainable aviation fuel for medium- and long-haul operations. We have identified the building blocks needed and the scale of the challenge is substantial, but with supportive government policy and the backing of the energy sector, it can be done.”

Waypoint 2050 outlines several scenarios or pathways for the decarbonisation of air transport.

One scenario focuses industry attention on sustainable aviation fuel as the key component of action and identifies that 445 million tonnes of this low-carbon fuel would be needed by the sector in 2050. This SAF energy transition would require an investment of up to $1.45 trillion over 30 years. Annualised, this is around 6% of yearly oil and gas capital expenditure. It would create opportunities for energy industries to develop in countries across the world and potentially sustain up to 14 million jobs in operation, logistics, feedstock supply and construction.

“Importantly, this is a conservative analysis based on rigorous sustainability criteria and feedstock constraints. It shows that a build up in capacity from sources such as agricultural, municipal and industrial wastes is available today. It also shows that over time, as costs reduce, there will be a shift to other sources such as jet fuel made from low-carbon electricity. The cost of this fuel will also reduce and, with the right government policy and energy industry support, could be competitive with fossil jet fuel.”

Another scenario places the emphasis on radical new technologies and energy sources such as electricity and hydrogen. Battery electric options may be available for small commuter aircraft of between 9-19 seats before the end of the 2020s. Hydrogen as a source of fuel could potentially power larger aircraft for short-haul operations from the middle of the 2030s.

“Both electric and hydrogen options for aircraft are exciting opportunities to test the innovative skill the industry has always displayed. Challenges remain in deploying these options, but their benefits could be significant. Coupled with sustainable aviation fuel, particularly for longer-range missions, passengers in 2050 will have access to almost zero-carbon flights. Already, we have implemented measures that mean a flight produces around the same per-passenger emissions as a small car with average occupancy, adding in these new technical solutions will lead us beyond that and towards zero carbon connectivity.”

Dodd added: “Air transport is a vital driver of global economic development, social cohesion, family connections and business opportunities. Governments can play a key role in helping to sustain a green recovery for aviation from the Covid-19 crisis and a path towards net-zero emissions from air transport. The next decade will set the sustainable aviation agenda out to 2050 and beyond. This is a crucial period.”

Key statistics outlined in the Waypoint 2050 pathways include:

  • By 2050, the industry will connect over 10 billion passengers a year, with traffic growing 2.5 times higher than 2019, but also reaching net-zero CO2 emissions.
  • Radical new technologies such as new configurations of aircraft, introducing hybrid power architectures or shifting to electricity or hydrogen as a source of power could contribute between 12% and 34% of the needed emissions reductions.
  • Sustainable aviation fuels could contribute between 53% and 71% of required carbon reductions.
  • Improving the way the sector operates and provides infrastructure could reduce emissions between 7% and 10%.
  • And carbon removals will likely be needed for around 8% of residual emissions in 2050.