We recently attended the first ever IATA World Sustainability Symposium (WSS), which brought together representatives from the industry and governments to discuss the key enablers for aviation’s decarbonization.
Over 500 delegates attended the event in Madrid, Spain, and 60+ airlines were represented. To try to make the event a more sustainable one, organizers sourced local food and sustainably produced furniture, and used plantable badges and edible coffee cups, amongst other measures.
Presentations and workshops focused on different areas of sustainability, including the roadmaps to net zero, Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF), hydrogen and electric technologies, non-CO2 emissions, the role of finance and more.
If you missed this event, don’t panic – here are our team’s top three takeaways.
1. Scaling up SAF will require carrots and sticks
Exactly how the aviation industry will reach its net zero carbon 2050 target is not yet certain. But there’s one thing we can be sure of: SAF will be the biggest lever. According to the industry roadmaps produced so far, SAF is going to be responsible for at least 50% of the emissions reduction.
To achieve this, the Waypoint 2050 report estimates we need to scale-up SAF usage from around 300,000 tons of SAF in 2022 to around 400 million tons by 2050. So, the question is, how do we best do this?
That question was debated in the CEO roundtable session at WSS, by Anne Rigail from Air France, Patrick Healy from Cathay Pacific, Roberto Alvo from LATAM Airlines, and Willie Walsh from IATA. Willie Walsh made the point that the demand was there – every single drop of SAF produced has been bought – but the high cost is a barrier to airlines, and he felt more incentives were needed.
The panel discussed the difference between government policies in the US and Europe and the impact this has had. While the US has heavily incentivized SAF, Europe is mandating its use. Mandates are already in place in France, Norway and Sweden for example. This has caused a huge variation in the price of SAF – it’s more than double the price in Europe compared to the US – which has driven airlines to purchase SAF from the US. Clearly, this isn’t benefitting the global economy. Patrick and Roberto also highlighted that in South America and Asia, SAF policies were yet to be established.
Most of the panel felt that a more consistent approach across countries was required – probably a combination of incentives (‘carrot’) and mandates (‘stick’) – to ensure production and uptake could be rapidly scaled-up right across the globe, which would then naturally bring costs down. The point was made that SAF production offers huge benefits to the GPD of a country.
2. Alternatives to SAF are still part of the solution
Hybrid, electric and hydrogen-powered aircraft
Clearly SAF alone can’t get us all the way to net zero. The next biggest lever is likely to be technology innovation, so several sessions discussed the potential of hybrid, electric, and hydrogen-powered aircraft. Interestingly, in the net zero 2050 pathways session, it was said that a transition to hydrogen-powered aircraft could contribute up to 27% towards the target, though of course there is still uncertainty about when this technology would be available for commercial aircraft.
In Tuesday afternoon’s session specifically about hydrogen and electric aircraft, representatives from the manufacturing and airport industries discussed the challenges of transitioning to these alternative propulsion systems. There is consensus in the industry that these solutions will be suitable for domestic and regional travel but are so far unscalable for long haul operations. Other challenges include the need to make major changes to airport infrastructure, such as battery charging stations and storage for liquid hydrogen (which must be maintained at -253C), as well as new standards and training for technicians.
In short, these technologies are promising and will work for certain flights, but a lot more research and development needs to happen first, so they aren’t likely to come on stream until 2035 onwards. Airbus have been one of the boldest manufacturers, recently stating they “strongly believe” they will be ready with a hydrogen plane by 2035.
Offsets and CORSIA
Although increasingly controversial, carbon offsets and specifically, the Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), will still need to play a role in getting us to net zero – especially in the short-term while SAF production and the development of alternative propulsion technologies scale up. For instance, in the Waypoint 2050 report, offsets are still expected to make up 6–8% of the emissions reductions by 2050.
In the CEO roundtable, offsets were discussed and the controversy surrounding them was highlighted. Most of the panelists agreed that public perception around offsets had deteriorated. However, both Willie Walsh and Patrick Healy reminded everyone that CORSIA was an important first step and represented a global agreement that was still going to be important until 2050. They agreed though, that the processes and standards around carbon credit verification need to be reviewed to resolve the issues.
3. It’s not just about CO2. Contrails are an important factor too.
In Wednesday morning’s session on non-CO2 emissions, scientists from MIT and Imperial College London discussed what is currently known about contrails and how they are contributing to global warming.
They explained there was now consensus amongst scientists that persistent contrails have a warming effect on the planet, because they can trap heat in the atmosphere. However, there wasn’t a consensus on exactly how much of a warming effect they had, though some studies have claimed they could be responsible for more warming than the carbon emissions from an aircraft’s fuel.
Not all flights create contrails: the air needs to be both moist and cold enough, which means they are more prevalent in certain regions, such as North America and Europe. The public contrails map (developed by Breakthrough Energy in collaboration with Imperial College) shows this clearly. Also, a contrail’s impact on the climate depends on several factors, including the time of day, the plane’s height, temperature, and other factors. This means that small adjustments to flying altitude may help to significantly reduce the warming effects of contrails. The scientist from Imperial College London said they were hoping to contribute to flight planning in future.
Overall, more research needs to be done to fully understand exactly what affects contrail formation and how much they warm the planet – including how alternative fuels alter contrails. This will require far more monitoring and observation, since there are currently only ten aircraft globally measuring contrails.
So, there we have it: our three key takeaways from the first ever IATA World Sustainability Symposium. We found it a useful event, which brought together, airlines, suppliers and academia to discuss the key environmental issues. Next, we’ll be heading to the IATA World Financial Symposium, and in November, the IATA Aviation Energy Forum.
Upcoming webinar: Introducing, Seamless SAF Management
To help the industry get to net zero, airlines need to be able to accurately track and report on the amount of SAF they have consumed, which can be a complicated process. But not anymore, thanks to the new Skymetrix SAF module. Learn more about this free webinar.